Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Photos?
The first photographs were taken in the late 1820s, and the new medium developed throughout the rest of the century as a practical tool, artistic form, and social activity. But, even though there were a few smiles to be found in the early years of photography, it took until the 1920s and ’30s for smiles to start becoming the standard expression in photographs.
So why was that the case, and what changed?
One possibility is dental. Some dismiss the idea that bad teeth could have been a possible cause for early photography’s close-lipped images since that was a common condition and wouldn’t have necessarily been noteworthy at the time. But Angus Trumble, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, and author of A Brief History of the Smile, disagrees. He points to the professionalization of dental health as one factor leading to the rise of smiles, arguing that just because bad teeth were normal didn’t mean they were desirable. “People had lousy teeth, if they had teeth at all, which militated against opening your mouth in social settings,” he says.
Another common explanation for the lack of smiles in 19th-century photographs is that, because it took so long to capture a photograph back then, people in pictures couldn’t hold a smile for long enough. “Some of that is true,” says Todd Gustavson, technology curator at the George Eastman Museum. “If you look at the early processes where you did have a long exposure time, you’re going to pick a pose that’s comfortable.” But he says that technology has been overplayed as the limiting factor. By the 1850s and ’60s it was possible in the right conditions to take photographs with only a few seconds of exposure time, and in the decades that followed shorter exposures became even more widely available. That means the technology needed to capture fleeting expressions like a genuine smile was available long before such a look became common.
Christina Kotchemidova, a professor studying culture and communication who wrote an article on the history of smiles in snapshot photography, also questions the technology argument. That idea, she says, comes from our world, in which it seems “natural to smile for a picture” and people have to be told not to. But, she says, while smiling, in general, maybe innate, smiling in front of a camera is not an instinctive response.
Experts say that the deeper reason for the lack of smiles early on is that photography took guidance from pre-existing customs in painting—an art form in which many found grins uncouth and inappropriate for portraiture. Though saints might be depicted with faint smiles, wider smiles were “associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous,” says Trumble. Accordingly, high-end studio photographers would create an elegant setting and direct the subject of how to behave, producing the staid expressions which are so familiar in 19th-century photographs. The images they created were formal and befitted the expense of paying to have a portrait made, especially when that portrait might be the only image of someone.
But even from the beginning, a less experienced photographer might break the norms that were being established, suggests Gustavson. Some early photographs of smiles show the importance of context in determining the expression on the subject’s face. A photograph of two officers in the Mexican-American war in 1847 shows one smiling, and an image of poker players from 1853 also has one smiling man and one focused on his cards. An African-American man with his hands up as though boxing was preserved with a smile in 1860. These are still performative portraits, but they’re not quite like the formal painted portraits of the upper classes. As the types of people who took photographs and sat for portraits expanded, that in turn widened the range of acceptable expressions for portraits.
So it makes sense that what perhaps changed those formal expressions most was the rise of snapshot photography, which further democratized the medium.
“Take the camera out of the professional and put it into the hands of the snapshot photographer and then they can do whatever they want,” says Gustavson. With George Eastman’s 1888 Kodak camera, the chemical processing of the film was done for you and the camera came with an instruction manual. By including a section on what made a good picture, Eastman was “guiding cultural norms as to what photography was going to be,” Gustavson adds. The 1900 Brownie camera took it even further. At an affordable $1 each, it was marketed as a child’s camera, though plenty of adults used them too.