History of Photography...or Posing for Pictures

Posing for pictures – I was thinking – has changed over time. I like to look at old pictures and examine the faces of the people in them. Clearly, to pose for a picture in the late 19th century and early 20th century was quite an affair. It was clear that it was more of a choreographed art than picture taking in our day. Back then, people had to dress in a certain way for the photograph. The photographer would design the setting and order the people in the picture to sit or stand. He was the designer of the photograph.

People in old pictures had to appear serious, even dour. Babies and old people had to suppress their smiles. I often wondered if babies and toddlers were pinched in order to produce the right (highly serious) expression on their faces. It is clear that smiling was forbidden – pictures were a serious affair at the time. Women seemed immoral if they exhibited signs of gayness and men would have been thought less masculine if they seemed light or relaxed. People could certainly not look relaxed. It defeated the purpose of the picture. The effort in posing for the picture had to show, otherwise, the photographer had not done his job well.

It was over decades that posing for pictures changed. I know from old pictures in the Middle East. In my grandfather’s house in Tyre (still standing despite being condemned by the municipality because it was bombed repeated by the Israeli terrorist army), three pictures greeted us in the big living room that was reserved for formal gatherings. There was a picture of my late uncle, As’ad (after whom I was named), one of my grandfather, Muhammad As’ad, and a third of the famous Shia Mufti of Tyre, Abdul-Hussein Sharaf al-Din. They all looked too serious in the pictures.

Later I noticed that people were allowed to pose in pictures and even with a hint of a smile. Men assumed different poses that seemed comical to me: one would put his hand under his chin, or one would twist his body in an uncomfortable posture and smile slightly at the camera. This was the beginning of contrived relaxation in photography.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the rules were broken. It was then that people started not so much to pose for the camera but to clown. For years in Lebanon, people would use two fingers behind his neighbor in the picture’s head to give him the ears of a donkey. I don’t know why we thought that this was hilarious. I still see that in pictures from Lebanon. With time, the clowning – especially in Lebanon – would assume extreme proportions. People would fight and punch one another for the camera. The role of the photographer was eliminated. There posing was under the control of the people in picture.

Digital cameras ended all that. Pictures are now too casual and too instant. Most pictures on Facebook are now self portraits showing the different moods of the person. They also feature the person’s pet in different poses or the children – especially babies and toddlers – in various instances of cuteness. Digital cameras have taken the fun out of photography for those who were accustomed to old fashioned photography. I remember when people deposited their films at a photograph store to develop the films. They would wait impatiently for the final products. People used to fight to be the first to get a glimpse of themselves. I always felt that pictures lose their value as soon as you see them. Rarely do people revisit old pictures.

I had a complicated relationship with the camera. At some point in my early teens, I took up photography during the summer in Sawfar, Mount Lebanon. I used to wake up early to catch the sun and its effect on deserted streets and old trees. That did not last long, especially since I hated the smell of the solution that we used to develop films. As an object in a picture, I have always been uncomfortable. It bothered me that I felt that we were compelled to act a bit. I am always awkward in pictures (as rarely as I pose for them – I only do under duress), and can’t smile (except on rare occasions) in pictures either. I don’t know how people can be natural in pictures because I never am.

Comments

You also forget that most of the old black and white photos of our grandparent, they seemed to be required to gaze at an invisible object (or a flying saucer) that was at the corner of the room, never at the camera directly. Why couldn't they just look at the camera and be all grim as they want to be?

I am a big fan of your articles (political or not) and I am glad to read this one. It does get us a bit nostalgic on the days during which we used to send in the "films" to the library for development and then we got so excited to see the final product. Digital photography changed that, immensely. Yet, I think it does offer a great deal of advantages.

Finally, I look forward to reading more of your non-political articles, it gets us a bit off the ugly realities.

Dear As'ad

The phenomenon of giving "Donkey ears" or "Rabbit ears" to other people is actually a world-wide practice. I actually don't think it's funny...

why? I like your photos on the blog, while in action at burj el-barajneh. You wrote about people who want you to "redeisgn" your blog. Please don't do it. It is such a classic, that the world wide web will miss it, if it changes.

there is nothing particularly "Lebanese" in clowning, this is just a behavior that people do regardless of their nationality.. ..not that I think it is bad..but it sounds that you do...

Dr As'ad, I follow you regularly, and greatly appreciate your analysis, but don't you think that this article was best left for your blog? I can't imagine why you would wnt this to be an aticle for al-akhbar.

A very nice reflective article. Thanks -- humourous too. I love your daily postings too. Stay angry -- the world surely requires it.

Glad to see your lighter side. Too much anger gets you nowhere. Keep it up. This subject (pictures) was much more nostalgic and interesting to read than your ideological rants. More of this will make you a better columnist. We all want to know why you got so angry.

Pretty cool article As'ad - nice to see you able to be creative with topics in midst of the heat around us. Thank you I enjoyed it.

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