The Reasons Why Nobody Smiled in Old Photos

Perusing historical portraits, one invariably encounters a pervasive somberness.

Early photographic portraits, irrespective of the subjects’ age, often showcase individuals with serious expressions, devoid of smiles. This curious phenomenon is evident even in images capturing festive occasions like weddings, where one would anticipate visible jubilation. Such a trend is predominantly observed in portraits from the late 18th century extending through the 19th century. But what accounts for this absence of mirth? Various hypotheses and conjectures attempt to elucidate the scarcity of joyful expressions in early photography. This discourse delves into the evolution of photography and the conventions surrounding portraiture.

A prevalent rationale is the protracted exposure time required by early cameras. Unlike today’s instantaneous snapshots, these primitive devices necessitated extended durations to capture an image. Typically, early photographs demanded an exposure time of approximately 20 minutes. Consequently, subjects had to maintain an immobile posture to achieve optimal image clarity. Any movement would result in a blurred and indistinct photograph. Hence, it was more feasible for individuals to adopt a neutral expression rather than sustain a smile for such an extended period.

However, this was not the sole factor. As photographic technology advanced, the exposure time diminished significantly. By the dawn of the 20th century, cameras were capable of capturing images in about 20 seconds. The advent of cameras like the Brownie facilitated quicker exposures, enabling subjects to hold a smile. Although slow by contemporary standards, this was a remarkable improvement for the era.

Another aspect is the perception of portraits as monumental occasions meant to immortalize one’s existence. Prior to the advent of photography, portraits were rendered by hand, requiring extensive hours. The act of having one’s portrait made was considered a significant event, commemorating a milestone such as a birthday or a notable achievement. This notion of a portrait being a solemn and momentous occasion persisted even with the introduction of photography. It is surmised that people of that era retained this serious demeanor during photographic sessions, viewing them as equally significant.

Additionally, the Victorian custom of post-mortem photography might contribute to the stern expressions seen in early portraits. The accessibility and convenience of cameras led to an increase in photographing the deceased. In Victorian society, it became customary to photograph the recently deceased, dressed in black and posed upright, as a means of preserving their memory. This practice was regarded as a form of documentation, a passage to immortality. Such post-mortem portraits may have influenced the perception of early photography as inherently serious. Nonetheless, these images were simply one style of portraiture.

Moreover, the Victorian and Edwardian disdain for smiling should not be overlooked. During this period, smiling was often regarded as undignified and associated with the lower classes. A serious, straight-faced expression was deemed the epitome of power and elegance. Although this theory cannot be definitively proven, historical texts and documents suggest its plausibility. This societal norm could explain the widespread absence of smiles in portraits, as smiling was perceived as foolish.

In summation, the lack of smiles in antique photographs can be attributed to a confluence of factors. The prevailing trends were influenced by the technical limitations of the time and the societal norms regarding appropriate expressions. Initially, smiling was impractical due to the lengthy exposure times. Furthermore, the period’s standards and ideals often frowned upon smiling, deeming it improper. The rarity of smiling portraits from this era continues to intrigue and captivate the imagination.

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