The year book, staple souvenir of any American school kid born in the last century is the subject of a study undertaken by university researchers into the way our smile has changed over time.
The study analysed almost 38,000 unique frontal-facing portraits taken from American high school year books to compile an impressive snapshot of each decade since the year 1900.
Because of the photographic typology of the portraits contained within they are perfect for computational data mining, a feat the researchers claim has never been attempted before specifically with this subject. Unlike home made portraits of school children such as the ‘first day of school‘ photograph we covered in September the composition in each image is consistent over time.
The overlaying or digital layering of images is by no means a new technique. Popularised by photographic artist Idris Khan who created the called ‘super-images’ by overlaying the photographic typologies of Bernd & Hilla Becher. However unlike Khan’s work the method used by the California Berkeley and Brown University researchers is a purely scientific data study, creating abstracts from which conclusions can be drawn.
“The collected portraits provide a constant visual frame of reference with varying content. We can therefore use them to consider issues such as a decade’s defining style elements, or trends in fashion and social norms over time.”
A big toothy grin is generally accepted as the norm in a typical portrait photograph in this day and age. Some historians have attributed this to perhaps the prevalence of poor dental hygiene in Europe. Can you imagine a British monarch with an insane grin in the early 1900s?
We highly recommend you have a look through the original paper hosted on Archive which explains processing methods, quintessential styles of each decade and systematic proof that smiling was not always the norm in portrait photographs.
Mildly related: This Picture Isn’t Staged.