If you’ve ever looked through old photographs, you might have noticed the serious faces of all the subjects. And without further explanation, many people assume that they didn’t smile in old photos because they weren’t happy-but the explanation has many parts that you might not have realized.
1. Exposure Times and Blurry Images
If we want to understand why they didn’t smile in old photos, we first need to understand old cameras that would be almost unrecognizable as cameras by today’s standards. The first photograph is thought to have been created in 1826 when French inventor, Nicephore Niepce, modified the camera obscura to be able to produce a photographic plate.
But this process was lengthy and involved the handling of specialized chemical formulas to develop the plate. Also, the earliest cameras had long exposure times- meaning the camera lens needed to be open for long periods of time. Among these early cameras, a single exposure could take as long as 15 minutes to create- meaning the subject would have to sit completely still for the entire time the shutter was open.
If you moved while it was creating the photograph, your image would be blurry- leaving you with an expensive and useless image of yourself. It also meant that photos that included young children would likely have at least one blurry subject who couldn’t sit still.
Photographers during this time would instruct subjects to sit as still as possible and because it was more difficult to hold a look on your face for that long, a ‘neutral face’ was recommended instead of a smile that would’ve been harder to hold.
But as the decades went on, technology improved, and photography became faster- with shutters that could capture more light in less time. By 1860, a typical camera would require a subject to sit still for 60 seconds- down considerably from 15 minutes. So the greater reason people didn’t smile in photos during this period likely had less to do with shutter speeds and more to do with the cultural norms of the time.
2. Portraiture Was Different Then
We should start with a better understanding of the cultural norms of the time. Before the advent of photography in the 1820s, sitting for a portrait to be made of you was reserved for the elite. Think of commissioned portraits reserved for kings and queens. Created to immortalize their subjects, a painted, sculpted, or drawn portrait was the only way to record the appearance of someone before photography.
If you had a portrait made of yourself, it might hang in the home of your descendants for generations as the only opportunity they would have to see what you looked like. This form of artwork was mostly inaccessible to common people so portraiture represented a small fraction of the population- posed in massive halls, dressed in their best clothes, and often adorned with fine jewels. Portraits were created to immortalize but were also used to convey power, importance, beauty, wealth, taste, and virtue.
Being that you might only have one portrait made of you in your life- you wanted to make an impression of who you were. These sessions with skilled artists were costly and momentous occasions that were taken seriously.
3. Once-In-A-Lifetime Portraits Were Taken Seriously
But when the first successful camera was developed in the 1820s, portraiture would change forever. More widely accessible to the masses, people of a wider (but still wealthy) class had the chance to have a portrait made of them. Still expensive and difficult to coordinate- photography portrait sessions in the early days were still taken very seriously, as their painted predecessors had been. People sat for these images to create an immortalized vision of themselves. An occasion they likely only had once in their lives, hence they would approach it with the necessary respect and a solemn attitude.
4. Smiling in Photography is a Modern Conception
Looking at these images through a modern lens, we’re likely inclined to ask: “Why didn’t they smile in old photos?” but they might ask us: “Why would we smile in our photos?”
To revisit the example of painted portraits, early photography sessions reflected the beauty standards of the time- many in stark comparison to modern preferences. Smiles and wide grins in a portrait setting would have been thought of as reflecting madness, drunkenness, or otherwise immature behavior. So if you had one shot to have an immortalized image made of yourself- you’d likely prefer that you didn’t look ‘deranged’ by the standards of the day.
To borrow words from the prolific author, Mark Twain: “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile- caught and fixed forever.”
4. Lack of Proper Dental Care
Another consideration from these early days of photography is that people didn’t have access to regular dental care during this era- so many had missing or rotten teeth that they likely would have kept concealed.
When Did People Start Smiling in Photos?
If you flipped through a catalog of images from the early 1900s- you might notice a dramatic shift in the mood, subjects, clothes, and settings of photography in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. So what changed?
The Impact of the Brownie Camera by Eastman Kodak
Technological and cultural shifts began to impact portraiture in the 1820s with early cameras- but they were big, expensive, and not easily portable. As cameras improved over the following decades, more photography studios opened, but the photographs could still only be created by an experienced artist. The popularity of the medium drove George Eastman (of the Eastman Kodak Company) to create a small, handheld camera that would make photography more accessible to the masses, called The Brownie.
Released in 1900 and sold for $1, the Brownie distilled the camera to its basic elements, making it cheap and easy to use, and was initially marketed as a children’s toy. The camera was immediately popular- selling 150,000 Brownies in the first year and creating a new genre: personal photography.
These lightweight cameras were easy to tote along and very easily, people were able to create snapshots of candid moments in their lives. With photography becoming more prolific, you were more likely to have many photographs of yourself over time meaning that more casual scenes and poses were acceptable.
The more informal approach of ‘personal photography’ began to impact formal portrait photography as well and increasingly over the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, we see more portrait subjects with obvious grins.
The Impact Movies Had on Photography
Another cultural shift impacted photography: moving pictures. Between 1890 and 1927, thousands of silent movies were released that, without sound, showcased an array of human emotions in a pronounced way that hadn’t been widely portrayed before. As time went on, this more full expression of human emotions became more socially acceptable and can subsequently be seen in portrait photography.
While researching this article, I learned a lot that I didn’t know about photography and its history. To study how our images have evolved in the 200 years of photography is a fascinating look into so many things: fashion, families, culture, etc. But I had to continually remind myself to try and take off my 2020s-colored glasses when viewing these images because many of the assumptions I made (about smiles, for instance) were lacking in historic perspective. It made me consider how our images will be perceived 100 years from now.
An interesting fact I found that I think will wrap this up nicely: by 1930, it is estimated that 1 billion images were created every year, Today, it is estimated that 5 billion images are created every day.