Smiling At A Camera Cultural Studies Essay

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The learnt response to smiling at a camera is an automatic response that many of us do without thinking, like talking, walking or even breathing.This critical essay shall discuss the context behind smiling for the camera, why we do it, how it has changed over the centuries and argue the point that smiling for a camera is wrong.

Prior to photography, painting was the main source of portraiture across the whole world, paintings were used to show the wealth of the family. As paintings were the main format for portraiture the artist could paint and depict any expression that they wish to convey, or how the client wishes what facial expres they want to be portrayed with. In most cases the artist would paint the whole family with very vague and neutral faces, they seldom painted clients with smiles. The reason behind this was that the smile represented a certain class of people, the smile did not represent happiness and wealth. A smile in a painting was on seen on a peasant, the riff raff not on the wealthy and affluent people of the world. One of the most famous paintings with a smile is the Mona Lisa, [Fig.1] in the corner of her mouth she portrays a very faint smile. This is one of the earliest records in using a smile. It is very subtle, yet changes the whole mood of the painting.

[Fig. 1]

Portrait photography has grown and changed inevitably since the first photographic portrait was made in 1839, when a very crude self portrait was created by Robert Cornelius. It has been well over 150 years since this historical event took place and photography has advanced far more than anyone could have imagined. There are a few main points how this transition has occurred over the centuries. When photography was first discovered, one of the main drawbacks was the size of the equipment and time it took to produce one image. This meant that sitters had to sit perfectly still for over a minute to have their portrait taken. Thus all of these portraits resulted in "The pure unreadable blankness" as Elkins (2005a) states in his essay response, portrayed in [Fig. 2]. The blank stare of Maupassant, taken by Felix Nadar in 1888. Elkins is saying that the portraits taken by Struth, Wall, Dijkstra, and Streuli all have the same quality of blank stare that is not pleasing nor inviting. Elkins (2005b) uses the word "vegetative state" which conveys the message that there is no-life in the portraits displayed. Thus backing up the use of a smile to portray life in an image.

[Fig. 2]

On the other hand Elkins (2005) states that "The succession of blank stares and meaningless smiles is more enervating than absorptive". Eliminating the fact that a smile will pick up and add more life to an image, which explores the fact that the smile is only what is perceived by the viewer.

As photography progressed over the years, the culture that came along with taking photographs also evolved just a rapidly as the technology itself. In 1888 George Eastman the founder of Kodak created the worlds first simple to use camera which was not only simple to use but also Fun. Fun was the main ideal that Kodak used to make photography more commercial and appealing to the general public. Kodak produced the first ever mass production camera, it was small, lightweight and easy to operate. Kodak used the Slogan 'you press the button, we do the rest'. A very simple illustration was used for this advertising campaign [Fig. 3]. This simple slogan helped sell the Kodak Brownie which meant that thousands of people could affordably and easily start to produce their own images.

[Fig. 3]

Kodaks advertising strategy moved with pace and took a very modern approach on advertising, using many techniques that today's advertising producers would consider standard practise. Amongst their sales techniques the one that was most drastic and modern for the time was the use of a woman, a woman with a smile. With this sales technique Kodak were saying to the audience that the camera was so easy, that even women can operate them. This very sexist remark was standard practise back then. The social and sexist power between men and women was still very divided and the power of men over women was still obvious. The use of the smile was to convey fun. This enticed the viewer into wanting the product even more, as using the camera in a fun way then made the camera into a leisure activity. Gaining the attention of the young and old alike. Pushing photography more and more into the public domain.

As Kodak pushed the boundaries in advertising, it is easy to see how over time the smile progressed into the public's presence throughout the century. As [Fig. 4] represents one of the early Kodak adverts using women smiling. This hand Illustrated piece is aimed at the British audience. The scenery behind the girl represents this, also her style of clothes back up this representation. The girl is slightly smiling while outside with her camera, which would be quite a sight in that era.. She is obviously happy and having a fun time using her kodak. This advert alone pushes a lot of Boundaries of 1910 as it is a girl using a camera on a leisurely activity and she is outside. Not cooped up inside cleaning like a lot of the adverts presented back in the early 1900s.

In comparison to the early Kodak advert the more modern Kodak Film adverts were pushing the limits even more. Using, bigger smiles, more scantily clad women and life-size images to really get their point across seen in [Fig.5]. This young, well tanned, blonde good looking female is a life-size cardboard cut out. If people from the early 1900s saw this image they would have been astonished with the amount of skin on show. Whereas people for the 21st century would not give the scantily clad woman a second look. Kodak has moved with the times and bought the smile upto date with it. Many modern adverts still use this same principle. Buy this product, get this lifestyle.

[Fig. 4] [Fig. 5]

The smile was adopted by photographers when the technology allowed them to capture moments in time. As photography was still in it's early stages they used a lot of the same principles as the artists used when painting portraiture such as; posture, composition and the facial expressions. Yet, photography was not considered art as Grace-Kobas (1997) states in the Cornell Chronicle "In 1867 The French court ruled that only art could be copyrighted since photography was not art, it was not subject to copyright laws". If photography was not considered art then this maybe the reason to why photography developed the smile. Yes, photographers used art as a base for it's portraits but they were not restricted by certain fashions, rules and groups who depicted how and what style they painted in. Photography was new and evolving very fast throughout the centuries, setting it's own rules along the way.

Even though smiling and women had been used to sell products in the past, prior to Kodak, these were cleaning products and were aimed at women. Kodaks advertising revolution was one of the most profound yet most overlooked piece of photography history. Kodak lead the way in using the emotion of others to help sell a product and act upon the human emotion to attract new customers, both male female, young and old. Kodak's use of smiling for the camera has essentially embedded the natural reaction for people to smile in the 21st century.

Another reason why smiling became popular at the time of Kodaks evolution was the fact that oral hygiene had improved. This was due to toothpaste and mouth cleaning products that were developed and improved upon along with many other new dental practises. Automatically, people like to hide parts of their body that they dislike. It is a natural human response. On the other hand humans like to show off, so if nice teeth are a part of the human race more people will be more likely to smile in the images. Bad oral hygiene was also a factor to why a lot of portraiture paintings and earlier portrait photographs were taken without smiles as says in his book.

Trumble, A. (2004b) "On the whole, the great traditions of portraiture, eastern and western, tended to conceal most skin ailments and keep the sitter's mouth firmly shut."

In the 21st century, a lot of people in many countries around the world smile for photographs. Smiling is embedded into peoples natural instinct, for instance chinese people do not smile at strangers, this often is a great surprise to western people as it is not what they are used to. Similarly a few Isolated tribes still do not smile for photographs, simply because their technology is still very primitive. If you did not know what a camera was, why would you smile at it? This is simply the culture and technology difference.

War - the last place you expect to see someone smile. Yet we see people smiling in war photographs or on the soldiers passing out parade. When soldiers are smiling in a war zone they are hiding their emotions, using the smile as a mask. In a sense, staying strong for their loved ones or even country. If they smile it shows the people back home that the war they are fighting is not so tough and that they are winning. Propaganda is a really strong tool and playing with peoples emotions both fake or real could easily help boost morale or demoralise a whole country at war. This makes smiling one of the most powerful tools in the portrait photographer's arsenal. Thinking about the end audience could change how the photographer directs the sitter.

The photograph what the soldiers loved ones have is always of the soldier in uniform smiling on parade day. They do not want a sad portrait of their loved on. Using a smile their loved ones family can remember how they looked at a happy time or place. Which in turn will cheer up the family and leave a nice memory of their missing son or daughter. this was used in WW2 to boost the morale of the citizens and soldiers alike. This is one advantage to including a smile, fake or real into an image. Again, it's about the end audience on how the photographers wants to send the message across. This is one main advantage to using a fake smile, even though it may not be real, the final outcome is that it puts a real smile on someones face. People prefer happy memories to sad ones, so weather it is fake or real it does not matter to them so long as the subject is smiling and looking happy.

The modern human assumes that everyone should smile for a photograph. Often even if they are not happy, many are obliged still to do so. How different would the world be if people did not smile for photographs. In fact a lot of people smile when it is not even needed, people put on a mask when having their photographs taken, they just cannot help it. This mask hides feelings for other people, how they feel or other things in the persons life. Like lying, people lie to mix into society, smiling is a way of looking like they are having a good time and blending into that social group.

"we cannot rely on the smile worn by another person as an infallible gauge of their happiness" Trumble, A. (2004a).

This is backing up the theory that smiling in a photograph can neither imply happiness or is a real smile. In simply terms, smiling for a photograph is relatively pointless. It is only a mask that everyones wears, which is wrong. People should be natural in their surroundings.

To compare images from the 19th century to the 21st century will show great contrast in the images, both photographically and in the subjects sense. [Fig. 6] Shows the portrait of Lt.-generel Pitt-Rivers, a well established army officer and archeologist. The black and white portrait was taken in 1885 by W & D Downey photography. Taken on a medium format Albumen camera, soft lighting from the top left. This would have been take on a long exposure and potentially a neck brace to hold the sitter head still to keep it sharp. A blank expression with a slight smirk stares deeply out at the audience.

[Fig. 7] Portrays Gordon Gietz a Tenor singer from Vancouver, USA. Photograph by Peter Hurley, taken in 2010. Again, on a medium format camera, except this is a H3D-22, a 22 megapixel camera. The modern lighting equipment means that the image can be frozen still without any motion blur from the subject or photographer, which in turn means that the subject can act pose and contoure their faces into a desirable pose Wide-open mouth, squinted eyes and chin forward, defining the jaw. This image portrays a lot of acting, camera trickery and fakery to achieve the ideal image. This is not photography at it's purest. Modern photography is all about faking the smile and not being tied down by technology.

[Fig. 6] [Fig. 7]

To conclude. Smiling for a photograph in the 21st century is instinct and the majority of the populis do it. It is not divided by class, race or ethnicity. Smiling was only prohibited by technology, yet it is only an aesthetic piece of a photograph to change the mood of the image.

The human ideal wants the picturesque images of everyone all smiling, looking happy. Even Kodak played on this ideal in adverts that they created throughout the 1900s.

Photography is an instantaneous moment captured in time. Photographers should work on this to capture the natural smile of the subject. Not forcing fakes smiles upon people. The real emotion of the moment should be conveyed in the time. Modern cameras are so fast and advanced that the photographer does not have to think about settings. Just capturing the emotion. Painters can pick and alter which emotion they want on their subjects, photographers have to work for it unless they prohibited by shutter speeds and other factors.

The smile is a tool. A tool that was first brought about to help sell products, fun and happiness is what people dream of, essentially the american dream. Focusing on freedom, hard work, success and prosperity. People like to see nice images of family smiling. Smiling has evolved along with photography and has been embedded into our natural responses. Smiling is neither bad or wrong. It must be considered prior to taking the image whom or what the photographs purpose is for. Modern photography is not about staying still, it is more creative and more fun than ever. Acting and smiling is all a part of our everyday lives, it's how people interact and bond together. That is all part of our learnt response to smiling at a camera. It is not wrong, just the modern day way of taking photographs and how modern people act and interact.


Why We say "Cheese": Producing the smile in snapshot photography by Christina Kotchemidova

What do we want photography to be? Response to Michael Fried, "Barthes's Punction" by James Elkins

A Brief History of the Smile. New York by Trumble, A.