People Kissing: A Century of Photographs is a book designed to charm. From its subject matter to its trim size and multicolored pages — many in pink and red — the volume, published by Princeton Architectural Press, is distinctly twee. In 106 images, the book traces the evolution of smooching for the camera. As authors Barbara Levine and Paige Ramsey explain in the introduction: “It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, with the advent of Victorian postcards and illustrated novels, that viewers were treated to images of everyday people like themselves engaged in kissing.” The images in the book begin in the Victorian era, and are arranged loosely chronologically, which enables the reader to trace attitudes about kissing from “chaste” to “performance for the camera.”
The images in People Kissing are drawn from the authors’ collection of found photography. The book’s credit section demonstrates just how little is known about most of these photos. Often the attribution is as vague as “snapshot, ca. 1910.” This is frustrating, as the predominant framework that the authors have suggested to understand these images is historical and cultural. For example, in a snapshot from 1910, a group of young people stand in front a brick building. A man in the corner has his arm around two women, and is fervently kissing one. His relationship with the second woman is mysterious, and because there is no context, not even a guessed-at physical location, it is difficult to judge whether his joint display of physical affection is respectively brotherly and amorous, or something more along the lines of a ménage à trois. People Kissing would have benefited from some dedicated research, or even accompanying notes that offered plausible interpretations based on cultural mores of the time.
The most compelling photos in the book show same-sex relationships during time periods when they were illegal and/or not accepted in the United States. The book contains many photos of women kissing, including one of the earliest images in the book, from 1890. There is a sweet photo booth series of two men who begin by looking shyly at the camera and end up in a passionate embrace, from 1950. Anti-sodomy laws were not struck down across the entire United States until 2003; these images serve as a reminder of how long the path to any semblance of legal equality has been, and how wide the chasm between the private and the public for all those years.
However, People Kissing has too many silly images that detract from the interesting material it contains: a postcard of a child kissing her dog with the caption “Kiss Me, Sweetie” (1933); a man kissing an ape (1939); and a middle-aged woman kissing a man in a Santa Claus suit (1975). And there are endlessly repetitive heterosexual couples in vintage images locked in embrace. Some pages contain quotes: “The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a deal longer.” (from Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.); “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.” (from Marilyn Monroe). In short, the volume is too aggressively cute and lighthearted.
Found snapshots are not without their appeal. Photographs that are particularly odd, humorous, or glamorous lend a sense of connection to unknown people — a bridge across place and time. But this is not enough to give a group of images great depth. The Family of Man comes to mind as perhaps the greatest compilation of disparate photographs. What made that series of post-World War II photography so successful was its mix of joy, sadness, and the everyday; it captured the passage of time and the variety within a life and between lives. People Kissing would have been greatly strengthened by the inclusion of images that created a sense of ambiguity, sadness, and the passing of generations. Repetitive happiness and cuteness can be dull.