While their volume certainly evidences the universal delight of kissing, it also highlights how nuanced the act—and the responses it elicits—can be. The earliest images in the book, taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s, capture some of the first on-camera kisses. Before the age of photography, “kissing was private, and images of people kissing were fairly uncommon,” Levine explained. Photography changed everything: “Suddenly, the most intimate expressions of affection could be reproduced and shared privately and publicly,” she continued.
In one captioned black-and-white print from around 1910, the text below two intertwined lovers enthusiastically announces this new phenomenon: “A Common Scene, Generally Unseen.” Even in its exuberance, though, the image is staged and melodramatically cinematic. Many similar photographs, shot in studios with hulking large-format cameras, decorate postcards and valentines from the era. Subjects dip low and blush hard, like the silent film stars they seem to be imitating.