Freud described kissing as the “sexual use of the mucous membranes of the lips and mouth”, but it’s rarely that clinical in messy reality. Passionate, provocative or political, kisses can be deadly if you’re Michael Corleone in The Godfather or artistic if you’re Andy Warhol, who flouted Hollywood’s three-second rule in 1963 by shooting Factory superstars snogging for three-and-a-half minutes. (The record for longest kiss goes to a Thai couple who did it for over 58 hours.)
The subjects snapped in these found photographs stretching from the Victorian era and across the 20th century, aren’t breaking any records; nor are they caught under a summer shower or on the prow of the Titanic. But together they tell an eloquent story about displays of affection through the decades, tracing the shifting tides of society through a patchwork of idiosyncratic details and body language. Unearthed from flea markets, garage sales, eBay and dusty attics by indefatigable American collectors Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey, their resulting book People Kissing assembles the best for our vicarious pleasure.
“There’s a sea of anonymous photographs around us,” says Levine of her obsession with found photography. “I pull images out of the stream and examine the layers, bring seemingly disparate images together, and hopefully in doing so come to understand the artefact nature of found images and their ripples, reveal something not seen at first glance.” Unpicking the tiny clues hidden in these split-second glimpses into anonymous lives – the 60s gay fancy dress party of uncertain theme, the un-wrapped Christmas gifts, velour hot-pants and kitschy trinkets – is part of the allure: “We immediately start creating a story: Who are they? What do they see in each other? Is it mutual? Are they kissing the way I kiss, or want to be kissed?” says Levine. “I especially like photo-booth pictures because of the ritual of going behind the curtain – you don’t know if they planned to kiss, or if it just happened spontaneously… The best found photographs transcend time and place to speak about contemporary questions and sensibilities.”
And while the focus might be on two subjects, what we’re seeing here is actually a ménage a trois – a dance between the couple and the invisible photographer snapping the photo. “You do wonder who was allowed access to this intimate moment,” says Levine. “The idea of the kiss as something private has been replaced by the idea that the photographed kiss can be not just a public act, but a kind of performance for the camera.”
Scientists tell us that along with serotonin and oxytocin, the dopamine released during a kiss hits the same area of the brain activated by heroin and cocaine. If plenty has changed over the decades in societal taboos, fashion and interior décor, our ardent addiction to that chemical cocktail remains the same. “You can’t not look at a photograph of people kissing,” insists Levine. “This collection is a testament to our inherent curiosity, occasional voyeurism, and constant delight in catching other people in a moment of connection.”