Answer Man

May 10, 2014

Answer Man: When did people start smiling for photographers?

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

Do you know when and why it became fashionable to smile for the camera? In doing family research or going anywhere where old pictures of people are displayed, I have noticed that nobody is smiling. Men and women seem stiffly groomed and staring straight ahead looking stern or very unhappy. Why? -- R.J., of O'Fallon

What a great question for Mother's Day, because we certainly wouldn't want to see millions of pictures of dour mamas posted on Facebook today, would we?

Not that they might not feel like it at moments if they think back on another year of changing diapers, running the car pool and juggling home and work while retaining their sanity. But, no, most families hopefully will wind up with endearing photos of beaming mothers that will be cherished decades from now, unlike the stereotypical stern-looking schoolmarm-with-ruler-in-hand shots from a century and more ago.

So how have we come to grin and then bear it in photographs? Experts, including Lisa Wood, curator for visual resources at the Ohio Historical Society, point to three reasons that focus on both the revolution in photography and in society itself.

At the dawn of portrait photography in 1839, when Louis Daguerre introduced his daguerreotype, it could take up to a minute to get the proper exposure on a photographic plate. It was much easier to simply stare at the camera than risk having tiring, twitching facial muscles from smiling so long blur the end result.

"To get clear images, people had to sit still," Wood says. "Photographers even had head rests that held sitters' heads in place. Having to sit perfectly still for seconds probably discouraged smiling."

But even as exposure times shortened, the parade of stern faces continued for a couple of reasons, Wood hypothesizes. For starters, daguerreotypes were relatively expensive, which meant having them taken was a luxury for the well-to-do on special occasions.

As a result, this meant the fortunate few would troop down to the photographer's studio in their Sunday finest for a formal sitting that required them to look prim and proper. Besides, in the Victorian era (1837-1901), a small, tightly controlled mouth was considered beautiful. They took their cues from much of Europe's fine-art portraiture. Some say photographers even suggested those posing say "prunes" to heighten the effect. Smiling was something captured on children, peasants and drunkards, hardly something you'd want for your family legacy.

Then, there was the matter of oral hygiene. Today it seems it's the rare child who can avoid a bout with braces. Teeth whiteners fly off drugstore shelves. Not so years ago. George Washington, for instance, reportedly had one natural tooth left when he was inaugurated president.

"In the 1800s, good dental care was not widely available," Wood said. "Dental practices like root canals and caps that allow us to keep our teeth today were not done. The cure for a decayed or broken tooth was often simply to pull it. People with missing or chipped teeth might have preferred to take pictures with their mouths closed."

The 20th century finally gave people something to smile about. Dental care improved. Kodak invented the Brownie camera that almost any family could afford to start us down the road to selfies. And, with the beginning of the motion-picture industry, cinephiles even in the silent era began to be inundated with movies and stills of their favorite stars sporting those overly emotive smiles. They began to think, hey, it might be OK if we stop clamming up in our pictures, too.

Experts say it was a tough sell at first. Even though Kodak's slogan was "You push the button, we do the rest," the company had to print how-to books instructing potential customers that they just had to click the shutter and send the film off for processing. Finally, with the arrival of such popular magazines as Look and Life, the average Joe saw the rich and famous looking happy in everyday-life shots so they began to follow suit.

And the expression "say cheese"? That may date from the 1940s with one of the first references in The Big Spring (Texas) Herald in 1943:

"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.' '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 ..."

Best guess? The big cheese himself: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under whom Davies served.

Today's trivia

When was the earliest documented photo of a person taken?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: In 1953, a small company in St. Joseph, Missouri, began putting its only product on the market -- an engine additive known as Scientifically Treated Petroleum, or STP. In 1961, it was acquired by Studebaker-Packard, so it for a short time it became Studebaker Tested Products. Now it's part of the Armored AutoGroup.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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