A smile is a curve that sets everything straight” – Phyllis Diller.
But it’s not easy to produce a smile on demand. A smile is a response to something, and therefore hard to manufacture. Yet whenever we are faced with a camera these days, we are expected to smile. It’s great if the camera catches us in a moment of pure spontaneous mirth, but rather excruciating if we have to wait for photographer to compose the shot, our smiles tightening into a kind of rictus. Yet in the current selfie culture, smiling for the camera is almost obligatory.
This wasn’t always the case. Mark Twain apparently once said, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity, than a silly smile caught and fixed forever.” Perhaps that’s why we still don’t smile for passport photographs. If Facebook is any guide, however, the silly smile is how millions of people will now be remembered.
In his 2014 book, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century France, historian Colin Jones charts the culture of seriousness at the court of Louis XIV, where he suggests “a particular facial regime held sway”. Upper class manners required closed mouths; wide smiles were reserved for peasants and the young. Open mouths hinted at animal appetites and obscene passions.
Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera’s 1642 painting ‘The Clubfoot’ is striking because of the subject’s open mouth and bad teeth. Those bad teeth might have been dealt to by a ‘quack tooth puller’ the subject of Theodoor Rombout’s 1620 painting where mouths in various states are on display.
Most commissioned portraits, however, convey the dignity of the subject through their unsmiling countenance. The Empress Josephine, who grew up in Martinique, where she could suck on sugar cane as a child, learned to hide her rotten teeth by covering her mouth. One unkind observer compared her teeth to cloves. In the many portraits of her, she appears tight-lipped. She was but one of those whose mouth suffered from the growing hunger for sugar, which flowed into Europe in ever-increasing quantities over the eighteenth century.
The invention of photography allowed doctors to study facial expressions in new ways. This became of particular interest to ‘alienists’ or early psychiatrists, who used photography to create a typology of mental states. It was quickly taken up by the police. In the very year of the founding of the New Zealand police force in 1886, the police began collecting photographs of unsmiling suspected criminals. They can be seen in the New Zealand Police online exhibition, ‘Suspicious Looking: 19th Century Mugshots from the New Zealand Police Museum’.
At first the preserve of a few, photography became democratized by the invention of the Box Brownie camera in 1900. Kodak advertisements enjoined families to create albums of happy family memories.
Many New Zealanders still wanted to hide their bad teeth. Thirty-five percent of the men who volunteered to serve in the first World War were rejected on account of dental problems. One answer to the scale of New Zealand’s dental woes was the creation of the School Dental Service in 1921 to treat primary school children.
New technology, alongside improvements in dentistry, encouraged smiling for the camera. Hollywood encouraged the smiling celebrity, Marilyn Munroe perhaps being the most famous example. The open mouth, alluring and suggestive, helped develop a consumer market for all sorts of goods, from lipstick to cars.
In fact the smile became essential in service industries, as Arlie Hochschild recorded of the instruction to American flight attendant trainees in 1980:
Go out there and really smile. Your smile is your biggest asset. I want you to go out there and use it. Smile. Really smile. Really lay it on“.
The curated life now centres on the smile. No longer do we photograph the dead as memento mori, and photographs of the aged have the potential to shock and might be regarded as obscene. We rarely photograph moments of anger, despair or grief and a culture of laughter is promoted by television shows where people laugh at their own jokes.
The trouble is we now have to be serious about smiling. This is a problem that makes me frown.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
- Alie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, University of California Press, 1983, p.4.