Smiling for the Cameras

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What is making him do this?

By Ostrander

29 April 2013

I don’t like to smile for photos.

Most people seem to keep a ready-to-wear smiley-face tucked away in their pockets, ready to slap over their faces when a camera appears.  Nice people do this, people in bad moods do this, even complete villains do this, and the results usually look quite convincing and natural.

While most people produce flawless faces of smiling cheer, some of the people in a group photo manage to look only mildly and pleasantly amused, keeping their mouths closed with their Mona-Lisa-smiles.  As far as ready-made smiles go, I guess I prefer these over the toothy grins.  A third type of group-photograph participants, few in number, makes absolutely no effort at all for the camera; they just stare at the lens while considering the mysteries of life, how they have to empty their waste baskets at home, or how they’d rather be doing just about anything else.  Unfortunately these people appear clueless or cold-hearted in the photo.  Normally two or three participants in a large group photo comprise a fourth group.  These should probably practice their photo-smiles a bit more because they forgot to bring their fake smiles to their eyes, and they look like Long-Nosed Leopard Lizards from the Mojave Desert considering what moment they’re going to pounce upon the cricket crawling across a stone in front of their noses.  There is a fifth type in a group photo.  On rare occasion, a childish man (almost always a man) will cross his eyes or stick out his tongue for the picture.  Normally grade schools will have exterminated these characters before they can graduate the fifth grade, but a few clowns do manage to sneak past the executioner’s axe.  Then there is the poor soul, type six, who makes a whole-hearted effort to smile but always gets caught in the middle of a blink.

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This photo has examples of all seven types of group-photo characters. Can you spot the long-haired guy sticking his tongue out?

There exists a seventh type of person in the group photo: the hider.  He huddles near the back, though he never can manage to stand in the very back because he isn’t very tall, and he keeps most of his face obscured by the heads of others.  Sometimes the dutiful photographer scolds that guy, and he must begrudgingly show his annoyed face until the moment that “Cheese!” is announced.  That shy fellow then ducks his head back to its original place, and he can take satisfaction in the final photographic product because only his eyebrow is visible in the photo.  No one can claim that this man didn’t show up for the group photo because the photographic proof exists by the corner of his head.  He can point to that eyebrow and say “I had a stone in my shoe and couldn’t stand still, but I guess we can’t get any re-takes now!”  And, yes, that camera-averse guy is me.

The ready-made smile seems very unnatural to me.  I don’t mind smiling if I have something to smile about, but the idea of smiling at an inanimate camera makes no sense at all.  It’s rather creepy when you think about it.  A group of people scrunched close together, each of them facing the same direction with an assortment of smiles plastered on their cheeks.  What would a cave man think of this odd behavior, I wonder?  I guess the cave man would believe that tiny, frozen, well-groomed people were peering out at him from the photo, each one grinning with amusement at the bewildered giant.

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Is this man’s soul trapped in a photo somewhere?

Someone once told me that the Amish believe that a camera will trap their plain and simple souls within the photo-paper, like in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, but only if the subjects are older than the age of thirteen.  That’s why the Amish won’t allow tourists to take their pictures but their kids are fair game.  I could see how someone might think this soul-entrapment was possible after they observe a group photo and see thirty zombie-like smilers.

I don’t know about soul-stealing, but I once lost $2.50 and the love of my life (or so it had seemed at the time) because of a photograph.  At the age of fifteen or sixteen, I had taken a girl named Pearl to the Wyandot County fair.  This was our second date; I had taken her to a gristmill for our first date, so the county fair sure seemed like a step up!  I had no doubt that Pearl and I would soon be married and have twenty children!  But then this atrocious carny huckster lurched over, a big fellow with slicked-back hair named Wayne.  Big Wayne had a huge camera strapped to his neck, and he barked, “How would you two like to have your picture taken?”  I said, “Sure.” He rubbed his thumb across the tips of his fingers: “Cost ya two-fifty!”  I didn’t like the way that Big Wayne was smiling at Pearl, and I despised the way that my Pearl was smiling back.  I said, “Sorry, fella, we don’t need our picture taken.”  He winked at Pearl and said, “How about you, beautiful?  You want your picture taken, don’tcha?”  And he wiggled his bushy eyebrows at her.  “Sure!” she cried.  I tried to give him the meanest, scariest stare of withering death while I handed over the money, but Big Wayne seemed oblivious.  He stepped back and snapped the picture with a blinding flash.  To Pearl, he leered: “I don’t believe that I have ever seen such gorgeous blue eyes on such a marvelous face before.  How would you like to be the new poster girl of the Peter Simple Big Show, beautiful?  I won’t charge you for the pictures, and you can take ’em home to your mama.”  And before I knew it, I helplessly watched as Big Wayne led my Pearl away to get “better light”.  I tagged along while the two of them laughed and talked, but finally lost them in the crowd.  Later I stumbled across them kissing behind the corn dog stand!  I marched up to the corn dog trailer, jabbed my finger into Big Wayne’s rib cage, and demanded he take his “grubby mits” off my girl.  Pearl seemed very disgusted with me, so I tried to impress her by punching Big Wayne in the chin.  Unfortunately Wayne’s chin lifted out of my reach, and he shoved me to the litter-strewn ground with one of his hairy paws.  The two strolled away together, his arm wrapped around her waist.  Some lonely and miserable hours later, since I’d already paid for the photo, I limped to the picture booth to get my photo of Pearl and me.  Pearl looked quite lovely with her glowing smile, but Big Wayne only saw fit to include my eyebrow and the corner of my head in the shot!  I still weep when I reflect on this utter humiliation!

People didn’t always smile for photographs.  Before someone invented black and white photos, the world only had brown and white photos, the kind where the photographer stood behind a box with a tripod under it, and he would blanket his entire head under a black curtain while he opened the camera shutter for five seconds or so.  People stood solemnly during this interval while the chemicals reacted on the photo plates; they never even considered smiling, and if they did consider it, the idea of holding a grin on their faces made complete moot of that hare-brained notion.  This is partly why everyone seems so dour in those old photos.[1]

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Photographers in those days used to say “Imagine your grandma dead in a ditch!” to keep the subjects from smiling.

Probably a more significant reason for this sobriety, though, came from the expense of having one’s photo taken.  People dressed in their best clothes, and they wanted to look serious and dignified for these occasions, not exposing their bad teeth.  A smiling person, they believed, would mock the formality of the occasion.  I myself tend to sympathize with this viewpoint, and the state of my teeth has nothing to do with it!

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Some people think FDR invented the whole “Say Cheese!” charade.

Then along came instant, or near-instant, photography.  At first people continued to treat photography as a serious occasion, posing much as they did before.  But then the politicians started smiling for the cameras, beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that maestro of public relations.

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The smiles keep growing, but so does the BS!

The very savvy FDR popularized this smiling among politicians; it made him look nice and natural, one of the regular people, not one of those stern and serious living statues that previously held the office.  The phrase, “Say Cheese!” is dated from this time, sometimes attributed to Roosevelt himself.[2]  Gradually a candidate’s every-man smile evolved into the ubiquitous phony grins plastered across our plastic politicians’ faces today.  It’s interesting to look at all of the official photographs of the presidents, lined up in chronological order.  The smiles keep getting bigger and bigger!  In another twenty years, we’ll have something like this as President:

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“His popularity was like his visage—a mask.” Taken from the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs.

But it seems that Kodak gains the glory for popularizing the smiley photograph.  The advent of cheap cameras marketed for use in everyday situations led to the democratization of photography, and this gradually evolved into posing for pictures during our happiest occasions, such as weddings and birthdays.[3]  Now people smile for the cameras without even thinking about it.  One UK photographer, after taking photos of storm destruction in Scotland, observed, “During the recent storms I’ve photographed several people whose property has been destroyed or severely damaged, and all of them went straight in to smile mode for the camera.  One lady had moved from South Africa after being robbed at gunpoint, only to have her new home destroyed by the Scottish weather.  She was left homeless and many of her possessions were destroyed.  It took quite some time to get a photograph in which she didn’t have a beaming smile.”[4]

I don’t know how people smile for cameras with such ease and comfort.  How did they learn this pose, and why did I fail to learn it long ago?  Is it hard-wired into human behavior, the natural response to the camera or to the attention of another?  Camera-smiling is now second-nature to just about everyone in the world, save myself and a few other crackpots.  This lack of learning on my part doesn’t really bother me, though, because I do greatly prefer hiding from the camera anyhow.


[1] Zhang, Michael. “Say ‘Prunes’, Not ‘Cheese’: The History of Smiling in Photographs.” PetaPixel RSS. PetaPixel, 4 Nov. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2013. http://petapixel.com/2012/11/04/say-prunes-not-cheese-the-history-of-smiling-in-photographs/.

[2] Boulton, Terynn. “The Origin of “Say Cheese” and When People Started Smiling in Photographs.” Today I Found Out. Vacca Foeda Media, 2 Apr. 2013. Web. 29 Apr. 2013. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/04/the-origin-of-say-cheese-and-when-people-started-smiling-in-photographs/.

[3] It’s ironic that even cheaper, easier digital cameras have now destroyed Kodak.  Adapt or die, I guess.

[4] McKenzie, Steven. “Archive Body Starts Debate on Smiling for Photographs.” BBC News. BBC, 17 Dec. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-16219211.

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