We're not sure when or where a photographer first asked his or her subjects to state the name of the delicious dairy product, but we do know that when you say "cheese," the corners of your mouth turn up, your cheeks lift and your teeth show. It looks like a smile, and since smiling is what we do in pictures, the instruction seems pretty practical.
The deeper question, then, is: why is a smile the default expression for photographs? In her 2005 essay "Why We Say 'Cheese': Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography," Christina Kotchemidova, an associate professor at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, puts forth an interesting hypothesis that deserves a look.
Picture-perfect smiles weren't always the norm, says Kotchemidova. Photos in the 19th century were ruled by stony, solemn faces. These early photos took their cues from traditional European fine art portraiture, where smiles were only worn by peasants, children, and drunks. The etiquette and beauty standards of the time also called for a small, tightly controlled mouth. At one London photo studio, the precursor to "say cheese" was actually "say prunes," to help sitters form a small mouth.
Then, sometime in the twentieth-century, the smile became king, ruling over snapshots with an iron fist.
Prior studies of the smile in photography, Kotchemidova says, relate its rise to "the speedy camera shutter, attractive faces in media and politics, and the rise of dental care," technological and cultural factors that may have begun a process of "mouth liberalization." Kotchemidova, though, proposes that we look at smiling for the camera as a cultural construction of twentieth-century American snapshot photography.
Photography was once a pursuit for the rich. A the turn of the century, though, Kodak's $1 Brownie camera (introduced in 1900), combined with their line of how-to books and pamphlets for photographers and their heavy advertising in prominent national magazines (these were the days when everyone read Life), created a mass market for photography and established the company as the leading expert on the subject. Kodak came into a position of what Kotchemidova calls "cultural leadership," by framing the way photography, for which they supplied the technology, was conceptualized and used in the culture at large.
In its leadership role, Kodak marketed photography as fun and easy. The company's slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest," assured consumers that the hard work, developing the film and printing the photos, was left to Kodak technicians, and that taking snapshots was easy enough for anyone. Kodak's ads and photography publications presented taking photos as a happy experience for both the photographer and the subject that served to preserve fond memories of good times. One way that message was communicated was plenty of smiling faces on happy consumers, which conveniently provided "a model for how subjects should look," that quickly spread along with the adoption of the technology.
Kotchemidova concludes that Kodak's position of leadership in the culture of photography and their saturation of the ads, magazines and their own publications with images of smiling faces allowed the company to define the standards and aesthetics of good snapshots, and smiling for the camera became the cultural norm.