Why Do We Say Cheese When Taking A Photo?

In these snap-happy times of social media, the selfie has rather diluted the noble art of taking a photograph. There's something solemn and dignified about gathering everyone together, posing, saying a customary "cheese" and hoping that nobody's blinking on the sixth attempt, and it isn't quite the event it once was. Nevertheless, we do still take meaningful photographs like these, and we do still say "cheese."

Why cheese specifically, rather than "almonds," "yogurt," "pineapples" or any other seemingly random foodstuff? As Christina Kotchemidova put it in a 2004 study "Why We Say "Cheese": Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography" (via Taylor & Francis Online), the history of the "cheese" concept runs parallel with "the history of the toothy smile as a standard expression in snapshots." Saying the word coaxes a natural smile from the face, and with proper timing, the perfect cheery shot can be taken.

According to Kotchemidova, the Kodak company played a huge role in the popularization of smiling snapshots at the time that photography was becoming widely available. Reader's Digest further states that the company introduced a revolutionary $1 camera at the turn of the twentieth century, meaning that smiles became — and remain — intrinsically linked with photograph-taking.

Cheese is the key to shaping the mouth (so were prunes)

Phrases reports that the origins of the term "say cheese" itself are unknown, but that it appeared as early as 1943 in Texan newspaper The Big Spring Herald. That October, the Herald published the article, "Need To Put On A Smile? Here's How: Say 'Cheese.'" The reporter promised "a formula for smiling when you have your picture taken." This formula, it seemed, came from Joseph E. Davis, once United States Ambassador. Davis said, according to the newspaper, "It's simple. Just say 'Cheese,' 'It's an automatic smile. I learned that from a politician,' Mr. Davies chuckled."

According to Kotchemidova's "Why We Say "Cheese": Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography" (via "A Century of Portraits: A Visual Historical Record of American High School Yearbooks" in the Computer Vision Foundation), smiling in photographs was a relatively novel concept around this time. Stony-faced subjects were common before this, throwbacks to the long and painstaking process of portrait painting. To keep the mouth suitably somber, photographers reportedly had a different catchphrase for their subjects: "say prunes!" This, like "cheese," helped to shape the face accordingly.