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‘People Kissing’: The history of the kiss in photos, or vice versa

This little collection of images doesn't try to do too much, but it suggests a history of photography, and of kiss photos. It stresses the sweet side of kisses, the side the camera likes most. You wonder about the story between the kissers -- and the person holding the camera.

"People Kissing: A Century of Photographs" by Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey. Book cover.
"People Kissing: A Century of Photographs" by Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey. Book cover.Read moreCourtesy of the Princeton Architectural Press

People Kissing

A Century of Photographs

By Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey

Princeton Architectural Press. 143 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by John Timpane


This is a little collection of photographs of people kissing each other, from 1880 to the late 1970s, mostly from the collection of coauthor Barbara Levine. She and Paige Ramey run Project B, a found-photo archive and curatorial services company; People Kissing follows volumes titled People Knitting and People Fishing. Mostly, we have commercial postcards and private snapshots, with the point-and-shoot private photo coming to predominate. That’s a story in itself.

Men kiss women, women kiss men (Marilyn Monroe bends over the far side of a car to kiss Henry Miller, who’s in the driver’s seat), men kiss men, women kiss women, mothers and children kiss, sibs kiss (there’s a cute photo-booth series), folks kiss their pets, and friends kiss (in the next-to-last image, Andy Warhol gives John Lennon a peck on the cheek). In a collection that is not trying to do too much, a short introduction hits many of the right points.

In all its varieties and meanings, the kiss was the kiss for hundreds of thousands of years before photography came along. Kissing is one of the few sexual acts permitted in public in most (but not all!) of the world. People Kissing stresses the delightful, charming side of the kiss as a signal of desire, passion, friendship, and familial love. Rich, delicious, sweet, those are pretty much the kisses the camera loves the most – especially when just-folks are taking photos of just-folks. What fun that act itself is, naughty, a tease, remembrance, evidence. I caught you! You wonder, of course, about the kissers and their story … but I also kept wondering who was holding the camera and why he or she took the shot.

Kisses also can signal ownership, hierarchy, greeting and farewell, even gender, in registers that shift with time and culture. (Kissing upon greeting has been more or less acceptable in the United States to different degrees at different times, being on an upswing as I write.) Little of that is here, in a collection gathered mostly from U.S. and Western sources.

One thing the coauthors are right about: You can see photography, both commercial and personal, develop with time, from the carefully posed Victorian greeting card to get-’em-while-they’re-doing-it snaps. The latter are my favorites, the slapdash, faded, momentary images, the 1930s snogging party in an old convertible flivver, the misaimed shot that cuts off the smoochers’ heads, the overexposed, the out of focus. Somehow, in their imperfection, they convince us that these kisses, these impulses acted on, these lives, really happened.