Benjamin Disraeli, retaining his dignity.
Dear Dr. Boli: Why do older black-and-white portraits show people so dour? Even the Mona Lisa’s smile doesn’t show any teeth. Isn’t it their duty to show us their toothy grins to prove to their descendants how happy they were? —Sincerely, Confused in Carrick.
Dear Sir or Madam: The real question is why men, women, and children of today think it an appalling breach of duty not to grin like maniacs when a camera is pointed at them.
Even as Dr. Boli writes these words, he knows that no one of the current generation will understand them at all. Of course one must smile for the camera: it is a law of nature, like gravity or natural selection. Yet, if we take 40,000 years as a good estimate of the history of representational art, we find that smiling for a portrait has been the rule for less than one five hundredth of that period. Would it surprise you to learn that Google Books finds not one single instance of the phrase “smile for the camera” before 1940? Yes, it would surprise you—and there is our problem. From the dawn of art until the middle of the twentieth century, it was assumed as a matter of course that the subject of a portrait must look his most dignified. At some point in the middle 1900s it became the rule that the subject must smirk like a chimpanzee.
And it is not a coincidence that the rise of smiling for the camera paralleled the rise of totalitarian states. Men and women thus robbed of their natural dignity are easy to control: they have no sense of their own worth, and thus no innate resistance to illegitimate authority. You smile for the camera, even though Dr. Boli’s own surveys suggest that having one’s picture taken ranks just below getting a root canal and just above paying a parking ticket on the list of things the average citizen tries most strenuously to avoid. Your smile is an indication that you are willing, no matter how you really feel, to assume any emotional state expected of you by social forces beyond your control. When you smile for the camera, you are sending a message to the powers that would control your life: “I belong to you. I have no thoughts of my own. My mind is a blank slate ready for you to scribble on. Give me my marching orders.” And those powers are listening to your message.