smile you’re on camera (2019) wet collodion on mirror
Smile, You’re on Camera investigates the evolving practice of portrait photography and the entanglements between advertisement and photographic culture. Richard Beard, Britain's first commercially-licensed portrait photographer (1841), instructed his customers—for whom photography was novel and quite literally magic—to say “prunes” during the exposure of their picture. This historical anecdote became the catalyst for this body of work. In America and England of the Victorian era, a toothy smile in public was considered vulgar and associated with groups possessing the least cultural capital: the lower-class, the mentally disabled, and children.
Eastman Kodak Company—a behemoth of modern photography—invented the first affordable handheld camera. Consequently, the company became a leading authority in photography, effectively educating the first generation of amateur photographers in America. Portrayed in their advertisements, training manuals, and trade journals were people smiling joyously, excluding the possibility of anything but affirmation of a photographic practice that is fun, easy, and essential for any occasion. The experience of the photographed subject and practice of photography was successfully pre-constructed and packaged. Popular photography in its infancy becomes an extension of advertising culture; embedded in the practice are strategies for selling products, desirable lifestyles, and consumer happiness.
Why do we speak the words of food products when facing a camera? Underlying humor and play resonate in the art work, as does a reflection of absurdity. I enjoy thinking about these customs as bizarre traditions that are perpetuated when alternatives are absent. Photographers reflexively operate as directors, perpetuating cultural codes and framing a desired behavior from their subjects. I celebrate the weirdness of photographic culture while taking a long distant look at its practices and applications. Aware of my own ambivalence sometimes I too make selfies, repeat “cheese” under my breath during a group picture, and share only those images of my best life on the internet. Kodak taught me well.