Say Cheese – When Did We Start Smiling for Pictures?

None of these presidents is smiling: Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR
None of these presidents is smiling: Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR

Every issue of Dan’s Papers includes page after page of photos of people in the Hamptons. They are attending celebrations, premieres, fundraisers, weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings.

In every case, these people are smiling. People look their best when they are smiling. And if one or two of the people aren’t, the photographer reminds everybody to smile, and if they are still not smiling, he discards that shot and uses another. So it goes.

The Hamptons has a wonderful history. It includes the landing of Nazi saboteurs during World War II here, Teddy Roosevelt in Montauk on horseback after the Spanish-American War, the terrible destruction force of the Hurricane of ’38, rumrunners and bootleggers during Prohibition, and the catching of the biggest shark ever landed by rod and reel. I’ve found it fascinating.

And in researching some of these stories to report on them in Dan’s Papers, I’ve noticed something very interesting. Before a certain point in time, none of the people photographed smiled. After it, everybody smiled. Apparently, there was a particular moment when, after that, photographers would prompt everybody to “Say cheese.”

When was it? And why was it? I don’t think anybody has ever asked this question before.

Photography came into general use during the middle of the 19th century. Family portraits of farm families in the Hamptons exist. The images are in black and white. Nobody is smiling. We’ve all seen the portraits of Abe Lincoln. Smiling? Nope.

Move further along. The end of the 19th century features robber barons, Wall Street tycoons and a whole list of presidents who wore beards. Andrew Carnegie, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield. Because of the beards, you’d think it would be hard to tell whether a man is smiling or not. But it isn’t. None of them are.

Look further into the early 20th century. The Wright Brothers are not smiling. Henry Ford is not smiling. A man who is almost smiling is the aforementioned Roosevelt. But on closer look, his expression appears to be somewhere between a snarl and a roar. Anyway, when Roosevelt rose to power beardless, the customary beard fad dropped away, never to return.

After Roosevelt came famous, beardless people such as Robert Taft and Woodrow Wilson, each of whom was photographed extensively with wife and children, but all of whom are still not smiling. Also not smiling were Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, who had good reason. Hoover was president when the great stock market crash came in 1929.

Here in the Hamptons during this era, you see portraits of Carl Fisher, the wealthy man who developed Montauk in the 1920s. Not smiling. Others with connections to the Hamptons during this era were inventor Thomas Edison and architect Stanford White. Sober and serious both.

Finally, during the Roaring Twenties, smiles begin to break through. Charles Lindbergh, looking out from the cockpit of his plane at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, smiles. Amelia Earhart, another famous flier, smiles. And on the early silver screen, Rudolph Valentino, filming one of his famous Arabian desert scenes, smiles.

I think the seminal moment for smiling in portrait photography really hit the ground running with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. First elected in 1932, he smiled at everybody, often with his head held high, a cigarette in a long holder jutting from his lips, and his jaw stuck out. He smiled until he passed on, 13 years later, still president.

Smiling presidents who came after him included Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter (who couldn’t stop smiling), Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

So it’s been “Everybody smile” ever since. Even now, when there’s not so much to smile about.

That’s all there is to know about smiles, photographers and “Say cheese.”

More from Our Sister Sites