Even Steely Dan tells us “when you smile for the camera, I know they’re gonna love it” and then “so won’t you smile for the camera, I know I’ll love you better.” So what’s the deal? Nowadays we will do anything to coax a (natural) smile out of little ones, brides, grooms, grandma, grandpa, you name it! Kids grow up conditioned to pause and flash a smile when we say “cheese” and hold up our i-phones. I’m going to be a nerd here and admit that I am genuinely interested in the history of this, so I channeled my art historian grad school days and did a little research. Not in the Tisch library stacks; but rather, on trustworthy websites full of wisdom like shutuphead.blogspot.com (?). As I had suspected, he claims that “in old photos…people didn’t smile because it was hard to hold a smile for the long exposure time that was needed. When technology allowed for faster photography, smiling became the vogue, a kind of social convention, something to do when your picture is taken. Just like ‘What’s up?’ is a conventional greeting whether or not you actually want to know what is up.” The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland just commissioned an entire study on it. There is even suggestion that every great portrait painting of substance does not include smiling (see below). To get really into depth on the history and evolution of portraiture, check this out.
So there you have it. I’ve been pondering this because I recently had a client shoot with an adorable 2 year old who would. not. smile. no. matter. what. we. did. Some days kids are just like that. So we tried a second shoot a few weeks later. The results were some lukewarm smiles and a few flirty “I know exactly what you want me to do, but that ladybug on your camera is not fooling me!” I did get a lot of wonderful candids and a few serious shots where he looked really gorgeous. Maybe I need some better jokes and props. No matter what, grandparents and parents really want that smile, and I’m just as guilty because I try for it in my daughter’s photos too. We want our memories to be recorded in happiness and cheer, not necessarily in pouts and seriousness. I can see both sides, but maybe some days it’s ok to get their other side–the moody, determined, individual side. Because let’s face it, we’re not always smiling, and maybe it’s actually retro chic to channel an 1845 daguerreotype!
(L) Gustav Oehme, Three Young Girls, Daguerreotype, c.1845