Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photos?

John_C_Calhoun_by_Mathew_Brady,_March_1849-crop

John C. Calhoun: Very grim.

Ever wonder why people don’t smile much in old photographs?

I love looking at photos taken of people from long ago. When I look into the eyes of a person in a photo who is a member of a whole generation that has long been dead, I wonder all kinds of things about that person.

What was he thinking right at that moment?

Why was he having his picture taken?

Who else was in the room?

Where was the studio, and what was the weather like outside?

What did she do after her picture was taken? How did life go on for this person subsequent to the photo?

Like most people, I usually smile when I am having my photo taken. In fact, it is considered weird not to smile in front of a camera. Sometime during the last hundred or so years, it seems smiling became the normal fashion in photos and portraits.

Why didn’t people of old smile when they were having their pictures taken?

Here are some possible answers from the Ohio Historical Society. Read below for a taste.

When daguerreotypes were first introduced in France in 1839 the exposure time for larger photographic plates could be up to 15 minutes, sometimes longer. In just a couple of years improvements in camera lenses and the chemicals used to expose the images shortened the exposure times to a minute or less, but to get clear images people had to sit still. Photographers even had head rests that held sitters heads in place when they were having portraits made. Having to sit perfectly still for seconds probably discouraged smiling.

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3 responses to “Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photos?

  1. The head rests always look so scary whenever I see them in museums! Not only could they not move for 15 minutes, but they were extremely uncomfortable with their head in a quasi-vice! Whenever people make fun of selfies today, I can’t help but think at least they’re someone better than this: http://www.daguerre.org/resource/exhibit/images/Awaiting03-05.jpg

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