Why don't subjects in 19th and early 20th century photos smile?


Why don’t subjects in 19th and early 20th century photos smile?
I seem to remember that is was for technical/chemical reasons rather than a matter of decorum, but I’m not sure.

I look forward to your feedback.

They had to hold still for several minutes at least. It’s easier to maintain a neutral expression rather than a smile.

I think the main reason was the technical problem mentioned above—you had to stay still for a long time.
But also, there’s the cultural context: Smiling just wasn’t the proper thing to do for a portrait.
Look at the pictures on the wall of the boardroom of major corportations…generations of the Ford family, or the Rockerfellers, etc. Or look at all the paintings hanging in the great museums of the world…portraits of kings and queens, etc. Nobody is smiling! *

*(well, there is the Mona Lisa…but even she isn’t smiling , by modern standards.And painting her with that little smirk of hers was a daringly new, radical idea.)

Because sulfur and salt petre taste awful !

Literally the flash would cover the subject in ash , its like the fall out at fireworks shows.

In point of fact, no matter how hard they tried, their mouth would come out as a blur, and that’s just creepy.

They had special chairs, neck braces and all the rest, but mouths were a challenge.

Yes, the obstacle to smiling is the long exposure times required for early photographs.

But, really, leaving that aside, I’ve never understood why people are expected to smile for photographs. Is being photgraphed supposed to be a uniquely pleasurable experience? Because, frankly, it’s mostly a pretty boring one, which is why an awful lot of grins in photographs look pretty strained.

I suspect the “smile for the picture!” convention arose when portable, short-exposure cameras were first mass-marketed. Up to that point portrait photography was seen as the successor to portrait painting - a serious business, intended to reflect the subject’s status, importance, etc. So you wore your best clothes and brushed your hair and arranged a solemn and dignified setting and looked suitably serious. When casual photography became possible and the camera and photographic companies wanted to encourage people to do lots and lots of it, they encouraged the idea that you should capture moments of fun and enjoyment by photographing them. And of course people who are supposed to be having fund and enjoying themselves are expected to be smiling, so the ideal photograph, as presented by camera marketing efforts, was of smiley happy people. And so a meme was created.

This was the time when Americans usually stood less than 5’6", had sunken cheeks, scrawny necks, huge mustaches, and serial killer eyes. A smile was definitely not in fashion.

Here are some pictures where people do smile. I love the first one: such excitement to have your picture taken together! It really looks like they had been trying hard to keep still with their serious face on.

A few months ago there was a fascinating article on the history of the smile in portraiture which appeared in The Public Domain Review. It deals with the precise question of why people don’t smile so much in older portraits. (The article concerns mostly painted portraits but there is some discussion of photographic portraits as well.) Check it out here: The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture.

By contrast, Queen Victoria’s smile in #18 makes her look like a doddering halfwit. (The publisher has rather courteously captioned the image, “Her Majesty’s Gracious Smile”.) :smiley:

Many of the people in those pictures have awful-looking teeth by today’s standards, so perhaps that was a factor as well. (I never ever smiled with my mouth open until I got my dentures.)

Even the dog is smiling in one picture.:slight_smile:

The little girl on the left in photo #8 looks very familiar to me.

I have a photo of my mother’s family, from around 1916. If you look closely you can see that one of my aunts had tears in her eyes. That’s because my grandfather caught her smiling and smacked her.

Since everyone had bad teeth, I don’t see how having them would take away from a person’s attractiveness standards at the time.

Very true.

Even famous and wealthy people had missing, discolored or very crooked teeth until the early part of the 20th century. It was a source of great personal embarrassment and few smiled for portraits or photographs as a result.

Think about it. They had no TV, no movies, no Internet, no music systems, no dishwasher, no cars that actually worked, and horses shit in the street. What is there to smile about? :stuck_out_tongue:

One could also posit that perhaps it wasn’t common to smile in photographs because it was generally a more formal culture than today’s, and early photos were perhaps considered a particularly formal expression of that culture.

But I like my first theory better. :smiley:

Do you have a cite that confirms that people back then were personally embarrassed by their bad teeth, or that good teeth were even a standard of attractiveness? It seems like modern standards are being applied here.

You know, there are classic modern family photos where the expressions are mostly grim.

I have a book of photographs of Mississippi river steamboats, and one of the pictures is of a young couple on the deck, grinning like they’re the happiest people in the world. Utterly charming.

Here, this is the book, although you can’t see the photo using Look Inside: