When Did We All Start Smiling in Photographs?

The people in old photographs rarely smile. Have you noticed? Here’s my theory: They didn’t know yet they were supposed to look a certain way, give off a certain vibe. They just… were. Here we are, in our Sunday best. Wearing the same tight-lipped expression as always.

I don’t walk around smiling all day. This doesn’t mean I’m unhappy, I’m just too busy, or thinking too hard, or maybe a I’m a little tired or perturbed to smile the whole live long day. Even when I’m perfectly content I don’t think I’m actually smiling. I’m trying to change this, now that I’m nearing forty—trying to earn smile lines instead of frown lines–but I think it’s too late. You know that saying, ‘it takes more muscles to frown than to smile?’ Uh-uh. Not true. I goggled it. It has to depend somewhat on your facial structure because some people’s lips naturally slant down (hello mine) so frowning, or a neutral expression, is actually easier.

But if you pull out a camera I will smile. Or make a stupid face.

So. I want to know, when did we all start smiling for pictures? When did it become the norm and not the exception?

Don’t get me wrong; I like smiling photographs. On my wall hangs a picture of my son when he was four. I went through great pains to get him to smile—a “natural smile”—in that Sears studio. I finally reverted to potty talk. “Whatever you do,” I said, “don’t think about stinky underwear!” That did it. Of course I can’t look at the adorable picture and not think about stinky underwear but his eye-sparkling smile is worth it.

So first came smiling for pictures, then embellishing pictures by pasting them in pretty books next to pretty pictures and sticker letters (which I also love), and then Photoshop—the magic wand that allows you to airbrush yourself and your loved ones and your life to perfection, and next the flattering filters courtesy of Instragram.

Am I against all this effort to make ourselves shine? No. I think it’s fun. I think it’s art. But here’s what I think we need to do: accept it for what it is. Realize that our photos nowadays contain a whole lot of smoke and mirrors. Yes, a picture can say a thousand words but those words may be pure fiction. Pictures can be terribly contrived. So can we all just come to terms with the fact that that stunning picture of that girl reading a book with her hair falling just so, that she probably wakes up with bad breath, probably even gets a zit every now and then? Can we grasp this and still appreciate the picture? Can we all accept that probably 90% of pictures don’t represent real life, at least not all of life, because really, who would ever post or paste an unflattering picture of themselves? That lovely picture captured a nanosecond of the best of the best of the best, and it might have taken fifty attempts to capture that one shot. We can all scrub up pretty well. We can all showcase the shine and hide the grime.

I have another picture of my son, also around age four, that pains me a little every time I look at it. He’s sitting on a fake turtle at a museum and when your kid sits on a turtle at a museum you snap a picture. Parenting 101. But he’s not smiling. His eyes look heavy and pensive, and I remember why. Seconds before snapping this picture, Hubby and I were arguing. I’m sure it was about something terribly important like if we should take the elevator or the escalator to get to the second floor but, whatever it was, like I said, when your kid sits on a turtle in a museum you take a picture and, months later, you put it in a scrapbook (Turtle. Museum.) even though it gives you a twinge of guilt to look at it.

But I also kind of like the shot. It’s honest. It tells a truer story. Yes, we had fun at that museum that day, but we also experienced moments of un-fun. Such is life. Happiness peppering tedium, or sadness, or frustration, or maybe even anger. Every picture has a context, a behind the scene. So go ahead and say cheese, play with filters, embellish away—just keep in mind we’re all putting our best foot forward, all of us, and the grit and perplexity of real life rarely see the flash of a camera.

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