When did people start smiling in pictures and why?
March 8, 2004 11:10 AM   Subscribe

When did people start smiling in pictures and why?
posted by internal to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It looks more pleasant? People want to remember being happy?
posted by agregoli at 11:12 AM on March 8, 2004

I know that the grim visages in early photographs/daguerreotypes arose not so much from cultural attitudes as they did from the requirements of the technology. The subject would have to stay stock-still for on the order of a minute. A neutral expression is easier to hold than an smile.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:15 AM on March 8, 2004

Probably after the daguerrotypes were superceded by better photographic equipment around the 1860's - 1870's. With daguerreotypes, the time needed to record the "print" was so long, no one could keep any expression long enough for the exposure. Check out the The Daguerreian Society for more info.
posted by plemeljr at 11:17 AM on March 8, 2004

Response by poster: Maybe. There are 2 current theories in my office:

1) Pictures used to take a long time to expose and people had to stand very still for a long period of time. They didn't smile because it was too difficult to hold the smile.

2) Most pictures were taken at formal occasions and etiquette back then was to not smile.

It seems to me that most people did not smile in pictures until the 1930's (or so).

Can't seem to find anything on Google or Straight Dope on this one.
posted by internal at 11:18 AM on March 8, 2004

Response by poster: (hit post after reading agregoli's post, but not the other two.)

Sounds like theory number one is in the lead.
posted by internal at 11:20 AM on March 8, 2004

Well, here's a possible answer. Don't know how credible it is though.
posted by orange swan at 11:28 AM on March 8, 2004 [1 favorite]

Well, people really only smile for snapshots, right? I mean, serious portraits rarely feature smiling figures.

My own hypothesis, based on nothing but my own experience, is that smiling became common in snapshots when personal photography became ubiquitous. When Mom and Dad began to have the opportunity to photograph Dick and Jane, they wanted to see Dick and Jane smiling. No matter that the setting or the circumstance might not warrant it, parents goaded their children to smile, and it's stuck.

My own experience shows that there's really a certain subclass of people that encourage their subjects to smile. This subclass includes many mothers, though it's a preference exclusive to them.

I know that when I photograph my friends and my friends' children (and I'm by no means a professional), there are certain people who wonder why I don't have my subjects smile. I try to explain that I prefer a natural expression on the subjects' face, and if that includes a smile, that's fine.

My brother took a fantastic photograph of his wife holding her newborn son. It's a black-and-white image of my sister-in-law posed in natural light. Moody and nice. Everyone loves it. My sister-in-law hates it. Why? Because she's not smiling. She's a prime example of the kind of photographer who wants all of her subjects to smile. Passive-aggressive me, when she takes a photograph of me, I try to look as grim as possible...
posted by jdroth at 11:54 AM on March 8, 2004

Search Amazon for the book "A Brief History of the Smile"
by Angus Trumble. Just came out in January.
posted by anathema at 11:55 AM on March 8, 2004 [1 favorite]

I always thought of it as a very cultural (read: american) thing. Even today, in third-world cultures, if you ask people to pose for the camera they will in general not smile (the exception being that you have caught them in a naturally happy moment)

That is, I always took it as a self-reflective thing (look! here we are self-consciously posing!) which seems so typically Western as well.
posted by vacapinta at 11:55 AM on March 8, 2004

This is true, vacapinta. When I get pictures of the young girl I support through Foster Parents Plan, she is always glowering. She probably never otherwise gets her picture taken.
posted by orange swan at 12:04 PM on March 8, 2004

Re-reading my post, I meant to say that wanting people to smile is not a preference exclusive to mothers.
posted by jdroth at 12:09 PM on March 8, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the lead anathema. Just listened to Angus Trumble talking about the book here.

The first caller's question asks my question. In a round about way he says the change was related to exposure times.
posted by internal at 12:16 PM on March 8, 2004

Amazing how quickly kids seem to understand that they're *supposed* to smile when they get a camera aimed at them. I have a difficult time getting my kids to be natural. Either they turn on a fake smile, or (the 4 yr old), a huge scowl. Makes the "natural expression" photos we do have that much more precious, though.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:28 PM on March 8, 2004

People haven't had the greatest teeth throughout history, either. I don't think they wanted to be remembered for their mouthsful of orange jaggies.
posted by scarabic at 12:36 PM on March 8, 2004

I'm with Vacapinta. When I lived in Thailand, where everyone smiles through the most solemn of life's calamities, people are poker-faced for photos. Maybe it's because, until recently, photos were for ID cards/ passports/ formal documents, because most people didn't have money to burn on snapshots.
posted by Pericles at 12:37 PM on March 8, 2004

From a footnote (No. 96) I was able to find in Corrine A. Kratz's The Ones That Are Wanted: Communication and the Politics of Representation in a Photographic Exhibition:

"Exchanges on the VISCOM (Visual Communication) e-mail discussion list in 1996 considered how and when Americans began to smile for photographs. No answer was proposed, but interesting comments were made. Hess (26 March 1996) recalled John Berger ([1972], 1987, 104) on seventeenth-century Dutch paintings: 'The poor smile as they offer what they have for sale. (They smile showing their teeth, which the rich never do.) They smile at the better-off -- to ingratiate themselves, but also at the prospect of a sale or a job.' Another pertinent quote was from Rav Birdwhistell, a prominent scholar in the study of kinesics. 'Only [as a result of my analyses] have I been able to free myself from an ethnocentric perception that I know what a smile is.' (cited by Rickert, 28 March 1996). Fussell (1982, 41, cited in Gordon 1997, 72) provides a clue to the history of photographic smiles. 'The smile was rare in photographs, even in the U.S. metropole, until around 1902, and laughter was a subject of photography only after 1917.'"
posted by ed at 2:00 PM on March 8, 2004

From the first lecture of Art 121 (Digital Imaging) (so long as my notes are intelligible)...

1839: Louis Jaques Mande Daguerre releases Daguerreotype [photo] (silver iodide-treated copper plate) and William Henry Fox Talbot release Calotype (silver nitrate-treated paper).
1844: Fox Talbot releases first photography book "Pencil of Nature" [photo]
1850s: Julia Margaret Cameron begins portraiture; first to capture "the soul of the subject." Wet-collodion on glass developed (gelatin cellulose also mentioned).
1860s: wet-collodion plate perfected, used for American war photography. French Government officially recognizes photography as art.
1880s: George Eastman develops gelatin-silver film. Amateur photography begins.
1920s: First serious darkroom experiments begin- negative sandwich, multiple exposure, photo montage.
1930s: Margaret Bourke-White hired by Life Magazine to chronicle the depression.

The way I see it, smiling started once photography began to be representative of oneself and the exposure was reasonably quick. I'll guess that smiling began in the 1880s.
posted by evilbeck at 3:05 PM on March 8, 2004

first one, fixed: [photo]
posted by evilbeck at 3:08 PM on March 8, 2004

always thought of it as a very cultural (read: american) thing.

Which leads me to a long-standing question I'll just try to tack on here: When did we become so conscious of the framing of photos that we began to feel the need to lean in so as not to be cut off? As if the photographer wouldn't correct for this before snapping the shot? Even though, 999 times out of 1000, when you get such photos developed, there's plenty of room for everyone to stand up straight without leaning in?

My guess is somewhere post-Land Camera.

(One response I got to this in the past, a response which I don't accept, is that people are just clustering up to show comaraderie. If this were true, they could hold hands, put their arms around each other, sit on laps, and, of course, still stand up straight. No, people lean their heads and torsos in, but they don't stand very close. They may be friendly, but the leaning doesn't show it.)
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:21 PM on March 8, 2004

I asked my great-grandmother this same question a few years ago and she told me that it used to be common knowledge that no one smiled in photographs because they all had bad teeth. According to her, the advent of modern dentistry coincided with the time that people really starting showing their chompers for the camera. I have no idea how reliable this explanation is, but it's something interesting to think about.
posted by iconomy at 4:29 PM on March 8, 2004

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