Say Cheese

The history of smiling in photographs

When someone points a camera or a smart phone in my direction, my immediate reaction is to smile. Parents coming for sessions with their toddlers tell me they’ve started putting on a ridiculous grin every time they think someone’s taking a snap shot. It feels like an unwritten law that we have to be smiling if we’re in front of the lens. But it hasn’t always been that way. The history of smiling in photographs is a fascinating and unexpected one, so I thought you might want to read all about it.

The early days

The first known photographic portrait was actually a selfie, taken in 1839 by amateur photography enthusiast, Robert Cornelius.

It was taken about 12 years after the first photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. By the 1850’s there were portrait studios in most major cities, taking professional portraits commercially.

Like many others, I’ve always thought the reason you don’t see people smiling in early photographs was because of the long exposure times required. After a little research though, I’ve discovered that this really wasn’t the case. By 1845, you could take a photograph with only a couple of seconds exposure.

Another reason cited is the state of most people’s teeth in the 19th century. Most people had to have their teeth removed as there were no fillings or caps in those days. Rather than a wonky set of pearlies on display, people preferred to keep their mouths closed.

It’s also worth bearing in mind how expensive it was to have a portrait done – about £25, the equivalent of three or more months’ wages for the average person. This meant that it was formal occasion and as such ‘prim and proper’ was the order of the day, recollecting the painted portraits that were so engrained in society. Smiling for these portraits was considered the action of ‘drunkards or fools’.

In fact, rather than the familiar expression “Say Cheese”, the Victorian photographer would suggest “Say Prunes”. Try it and see the difference it makes…

The lack of smiles in Victorian photography certainly doesn’t reflect a lack of humour. Occasionally sitters would buck the trend. There are some wonderful examples of smiles from Victorian times, made all the more charming by how unexpected they are.

There’s a lovely set of examples here:

The Kodak effect

When George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera to the world in 1888, his aim was to put cameras in the hands of the ordinary person. Photography became increasingly informal and everyday moments were more commonly captured: Irrepressible children, courting couples and laughing groups of friends.
It wasn’t until 1943 that the first printed reference to saying cheese is recorded in a Texan newspaper 

Now here’s something worth knowing. It’s a formula for smiling when you have your picture taken. It comes from former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies and is guaranteed to make you look pleasant no matter what you’re thinking. Mr. Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of his “Mission to Moscow.” It’s simple. Just say “Cheese,” It’s an automatic smile. “I learned that from a politician,” Mr. Davies chuckled. “An astute politician, a very great politician. But, of course, I cannot tell you who he was…”

The Big Spring Daily HeraldNeed To Put On A Smile? Here’s How: Say ‘Cheese’:

When you think about it, cheese is a great word for making you smile. Just saying it brings your teeth together and draws your lips back into a grin.

Around the world

“Say Cheese” is a pretty well known phrase in lots of countries and is used in different iterations. Food is often the focus, for example, in Japan the ‘say’ has been dropped and “chiizu” is commonly used. An ee ending else helps form that elusive smile. In Colombia it’s “whiskey”, Slovakia uses “syr” (cheese) and in Korea “kimchi” does the trick.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog on the history of smiling in photographs.
Like most people, I love to take portraits of smiling people, but no smiles are great too. Please contact me to book a session and record your smiles for posterity 🙂