Social Question

syz's avatar

When (and why) did people start saying "Smile!" for pictures?

Asked by syz (35642points) February 5th, 2010

I was looking at a wall of old, old photos and everyone looks so grim! I realize that early photography involved holding very still for a long time – perhaps smiles were too difficult to maintain? Or do you think because early photos were so rare, they were a serious matter? Now, of course, people yell out the insipid “Smile!”. When did we go from serious and stiff to ‘you have to look happy in your picture’?

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13 Answers

snowberry's avatar

It’s a lot better than “Stick out your tongue and say ‘AaaH!’” Most folks look nicer when they smile too. Looks friendlier as well.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Most people prefer to look at smiling faces. Even babies show that preference.

I prefer any facial expression that looks engaged with the viewer, as opposed to blank stares or looks of irritation or disinterest.

ETpro's avatar

I would guess they didn’t start asking subjects to smile very often till fast film was developed. You would get a really strange result if you used very slow film to record a big grin slowly decaying into a bored grimace.

mxilla's avatar

I think once photography was more commonplace, and people were photographed more candidly and spontaneously through out the day. They were more happy then in the early days of photography, when you had to get dressed up and wait around .

In those days photos were more for documenting family history, not really capturing a great Kodak moment !

Harp's avatar

How strange, this very question occurred to me this morning. Here’s what I found:

Smiling for portraits was frowned upon pardon well into the 1900s for several reasons:

Getting one’s picture taken was a big deal, since photography was only done by professionals. Having a portrait done was not undertaken casually; one was creating a singular record for posterity, and wanted to inspire respect.

The public smile was generally seen as indicating lower social class. The lower classes smiled to ingratiate themselves to their betters. The better bred wanted at all times to project that they were in perfect control of their emotions and expressions, as exemplified by the European aristocracy. So they adopted the dour expressions portrayed in centuries of European portraiture.

Dentistry didn’t come of age until well into the 20th century. Until then, most full-toothed smiles were not a treat to behold.

This began to change with the advent of the Kodak camera. Portraits became far more common, and so weren’t considered such a big deal. Candid, unposed portraits started to appear.

Hollywood broke the social strictures against smiling. Movie stars became America’s “royalty”, and their constantly beaming smiles gave social acceptance to public smiling. People began to want to look like Gary Cooper in their portraits instead of Frederick III.

And finally smiles became more presentable as dental hygiene took hold.

The change wasn’t instantaneous, however. One study of High School yearbook pictures turned up no smiles prior to 1920. By 1970, 60% of men and 80% of women showed at least a partial smile.

ETpro's avatar

@Harp Male here. They told me to smile for my High School yearbook pictures as early as 1958.

Chongalicious's avatar

When you see really old pictures from eras like the 1800’s no one seems to want to smile because in those days, cameras had much slower shutter speeds because the light sensitive chemicals in the paper used reacted at a slower pace. So, the photographer needed to keep the aperture open longer to let in enough light to make a good photo. In those days that process could take up to a minute or more. I don’t know about you, but I sure wouldn’t be able to keep perfectly still and smile for that long. Also, it was a pretty big deal to have a photo taken back then because it used to be an incredibly expensive process; you wanted it to look good. So having a goofy smile was not a chance you would want to take! But as potography became more advanced, of course people were willing to take more risks in their photos and maybe they saw how nice a smile looked? Hope that answers your question :)

trumi's avatar

Harp has an awesome answer. Lurve it.

gemiwing's avatar

@Harp – that makes a lot of sense. I mean we don’t see wealthy people smiling in family painted portraits so it would be natural to take the accustomed poses into the new technology.

mammal's avatar

i was on the verge of asking this question. Nice one

Pazza's avatar

Probably in the 1930’s

Harp's avatar

There’s an 18th century pastel portrait at the Art Institute of Chicago that strikes me as a fine art precursor of the spontaneous, intimate style we now like in our photo portraits. It was done by Charles-Antoine Coypel, a french court artist, and the couple in the portrait are Coypel’s brother and sister-in-law, on the occasion of their 10th anniversary. Although they don’t sport full-blown grins, the direct personal warmth of their expressions is a radical departure from the style favored then (and after).

The first time I saw this, I fell in love with these people. They’re not striking an aloof pose for posterity; they’re looking straight out at the viewer of the picture, they know you, and they’re glad to see you. As you pause here in front of their window, he points you to the door just over there, so they can catch up on your news.

It’s notable that these weren’t nobility, and that the subject was the painter’s beloved brother, and that the work was probably intended for the couple themselves, not the general public. All of this allowed for a level of intimacy rarely seen at the time.

I never miss an occasion to visit this lovely couple. I actually feel friendship for them.

candide's avatar

when they realised that people look much better when they are smiling than when they are sitting there looking like they wish they were somewhere else!

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