Why Photographers Say, “Say Cheese!”

    When taking a picture, all photographers—from the most bumbling amateur to the gadget-necked professional—before depressing the shutter rattle off that oft-heard phrase, “Say cheese!”  Whence comes this cryptic locution?  Why does it have such a universal appeal?  Erudite scholars may interject at this juncture that the word “cheese” (in the English language, in any case) obliges the speaker to form his or her mouth in such a configuration that resembles a smile, yet would not several scores of other—and happier—words do just as well?  Why not “breeze” or “ease” or perhaps “jubilees”?  For an ethnic touch, why not remind them of the tasty Italian bread, “Puglise”?  Amongst francophiles, the elegant “fleur-de-lis” could work.  Or, for a more dignified air, perhaps “if you please” would do; English teachers might enjoy “apostrophes.”
    Why cheese, a delicious dish yet one that often leaves a rancid aftertaste?  Surely one would not wish to remind subjects of this just before taking a picture?  One might as well say “antifreeze.”  To uncover the mystery of cheese and photographs, one must delve back into the early days of photography….
    Long ago, in the camera’s infancy, people never smiled in photographs.  Subjects posed without expression, with blank, empty faces reminiscent of early Greek statues.  Indeed, for centuries artists painted portraits in this stoic style—was not Leonardo’s depiction of the half-smiling Mona Lisa shocking in its time?  This custom continued for many years, as young and old alike projected their austere visages for posterity.
    One somber day in 1912, however, the wealthy undergarment tycoon Henry D. Brassier of New York posed for a formal portrait with his family for prominent local photographer Entfield Flimsham, ignorant as to the future significance of this event in the history of photography.  Just as the rather portly Flimsham was about to snap the picture, he emitted such an enormous fart that Henry’s wife, Anna-Magdelena Katrina Claire-Marie, giggled, as did the Brassier children.  Even the stodgy Henry could hardly hold his solemn poker face throughout the exposure.  Thinking the shot was ruined, Flimsham almost failed to develop it, yet did so nevertheless.  Once developed, he was astonished at how wonderful it looked—the family (with the notable exception of Mr. Brassier) looked happy!  He rushed to his colleagues with the photograph, and all were astounded by the technique.
    Soon, photographers across the country attempted to induce a laugh from their subjects.  Many methods were tried, but none found as much success as the original approach.  Sadly, even eating refried beans by the gallon cannot induce flatulence on demand, so photographers resorted to mentioning the original story.  For several years, camera subjects would be told “did you hear the one about the photographer that cut the cheese?” just prior to the snapping of a shot, which almost never failed to get a laugh.
    Over the years, photographers began to shorten the reference, saying only “the one about cutting the cheese,” and still later merely “cut the cheese.”  Eventually, they arrived at the short “cheese” of today, which conveniently causes the aforementioned smile-like mouth position, a remarkable serendipity of function following form.  Ever since, photographers have implored their subjects to say the word “cheese,” in a now-forgotten reference to wind broken nearly a century ago.  And so, the fermented dairy product we know as cheese became inexorably linked to the taking of photographs, as it remains to this day.
    Thus edified, we are now free to explore the mystery of the female obsession with closed toilet seats and its relation to the origin of the expression “eau de toilette”....

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©1996 By Luke Swartz.  All Rights Reserved.

I'm distressed to have to write this, but I just want to make it clear: this is a fictional story, intended to be humorous. I would have thought that this was obvious, but humor does not always come across on the Internet; perhaps Mena Trott is right that we need a joke tag to make it clear when we're being sarcastic...at least a few people have misinterpreted this story as a factual account. One of the more amusing/interesting was a staffer for a Japanese television program, who must be forgiven due to his tenuous grasp of English (after all, if native speakers can be led awry by wryness, I can't expect foreigners to catch on). He wrote, in what appears to be a babelfish-like word-for-word translation: "When taking a picture, it is said, 'Say Cheese' also in Japan. This, it has spread to a Japanese inside because 'say cheese please' and the American cameraman in a hard expression model in television CM of the company of dairy products in 1963 said." I don't want to make fun (after all, my Japanese is far worse than his English) but I do wonder what a "hard expression model" is exactly. (Incindentally, on my one, brief trip to Japan with the Boy Scouts back in 1994, I remember almost every Japanese photographer saying "Hai, Chizu!" before taking a photo. A bit more odd was that almost every Japanese person whose photo was taken would do the "peace sign.")

While we're in the East: A cheese factoid from the ever-facinating Ravinder Pamanani: "In China, or at least the region around Beijing, they say: 'chee-eh-ze' (approximately). The pinyin might be qieze. I was told they say this because of its similarity to the English word cheese, but that in Mandarin, it means 'eggplant.'"