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Where Did the Term “SAY CHEESE” in Photography Come From?

Have you ever stopped for a moment when getting a photo taken (or taking one) and thought “Why the heck did they ask me (did I tell them) to say “CHEESE!”?

I can think of only two occasions when I’ve ever discussed the “say cheese” matter with friends of colleagues, and even then I can’t remember the conclusion we came to. I’ve always found it to be a mystery plagued with rumours, myths, assumptions and no definite factual answer based on proof.

I decided to read up on some of the rumours I’ve heard, the reasons behind them, where they came from and maybe shed some light on the matter.

It started when a Photographer passed gas during a shoot in 1912

The first myth I came across was a rather amusing tale that went viral online around a decade ago.

The story was that when Photography was first developed subjects looked blank and without expression, until one day in 1912 a photographer named Entfield Filmsham passed gas just as he was shooting his subject Henry Brassier, thus causing the subject to laugh.

Thinking the shot was ruined, Filmsham developed the photo none-the-less, and found that the result was wonderful, so much so that photographers all over started trying to replicate said natural look but to little success. However, one method that apparently did get a laugh was telling the subject the above mentioned story about the “photographer who cut the cheese” just before pressing the shutter. Over the years the phrase got used and abbreviated to just “Cheese”.

As obviously fictional and farfetched as this tale sounds, when Luke Swartz put it online he didn’t realize some people would interpret it as truth, and a widespread rumour took off (including it being cited by a Japanese TV show). Swartz has since added a disclaimer to the story on his website, stating “I would have thought that this was obvious, but humour does not always come across on the Internet.”

Your mouth looks like cheese when you smile

A very loose connection to make! Why not just say “Half Moon” or “Orange Segment”, or at least “Edam” if we’re going to shoot out smile related cheese shapes (I feel the cut of Edam you buy in the store is the only cheese shape I know of that looks close to a mouth).

No clue where this one came from, but I’d assume it’s just one of those things someone once said that spread like Chinese whispers.

The Absurdity of saying “Cheese” for no reason makes you laugh and smile naturally

This one baffles me even more than the “smiles looking like cheese” argument. Who decided Cheese was a funny word, and surely with that theory in mind you could say any random word like “Donkey” or “Table”?

I tried to find some scientific research into why we find certain words funny, and all I could dig up was some articles on W. C. Fielding using certain words for comedy routines to enhance them based around onomatopoeia and phonosemantics, some examples where words have been made funny in surrounding context and obvious translation meanings that would be location specific. I couldn’t find any reason why a word could be universally associated as funny on a majority scale to complete strangers who hadn’t shared the same experience.

Again, I hit a total dead end on this one. Possibly another Chinese whisper.

The “EEE” sound on the end of cheese makes our mouths into a natural smile shape

This one almost sounds like a combination of the two examples above. I can’t really answer this without learning to lip read, but I know that to make the “EEE” sound you need to have your lips apart so it would show some teeth. Sadly that’s about all I could find, as there seems to be no background on who first said this and when.

Conclusion

If I had to pick one answer, I think I’d go with the last one. Although we may never know how or why this term came to be, it does have at least one use; it has become synonymous as the common (and dare I say “Official”) term in photography by association as a cue signal.

Racers start on “Ready set go” when they run a race, and us photographers tell everyone to say the name of a dairy product. At least it’s different I suppose!
Say Cheese!

Gary Dean runs freephotoprinting.co.uk, a photo printing website dedicated to providing all the best freebie deals for anyone looking to develop their photos of friends and family saying “CHEESE!”

5 Responses to Where Did the Term “SAY CHEESE” in Photography Come From?

  1. Phil says:

    I’m also wondering how “SAY Cheese” becomes the staple word to use when shooting a photo. The story is quite full of humour but as you put it, the story is still as far fetched as it can be.

  2. Felicia Baratz says:

    Wow! That’s weird! I can’t say that it’s anything I’ve ever taken the time to think about. It really is true what they say — you learn something new everyday! I’ve always just assumed that the phrase was mentioned because “cheese” is such a funny word. ;)

  3. I think all the photogs should have a different word to use :)
    Cheese is funny ,but if you use something even more unexpected and funny you get same great results .

  4. Janila says:

    Thanks for the post you make me smile. I really love reading this where did really the say cheese came from. Love it

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