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100 Years of Not Smiling for Photos

Ever wonder why no one was smiling for photos in the 1800s? Almost every photograph you see from that era has people in it looking as stoic as they possibly can, without a single modicum of fun in their faces. It’s strange because these days we’re so obsessed with smiling for the camera that we’ve even developed prompts (“say cheese”) to get ourselves grinning.

So why the long faces back in the day? And what changed to turn those frowns upside down?

Possibility #1: Bad teeth

Oral hygiene obviously wasn’t as widely practiced back then as it is now. As a result, many people had crooked, missing, discoloured or all-round yucky teeth. Naturally, no one would want their poor choppers captured forever in print, so they’d keep their mouths closed.

Some historians say pish-posh to this explanation, the thinking being that because everyone had bad teeth, no one noticed that they were bad to begin with. But Angus Trumble from the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia (and author of A Brief History of the Smile) disagrees.

“Just because bad teeth were normal,” he says “didn’t mean they were desirable. People had lousy teeth, if they had teeth at all. So they just didn’t open their mouths in social settings,”

Possibility #2: Slow processing

Today, we’re used to pressing a button and capturing a photograph. Anything longer than a split second to take a picture puts us in a tizzy and makes us want to upgrade our phones. In this way, we would have been woefully unprepared for life in the 1800s, where one picture took upwards of 10 minutes to capture. And if you’ve ever tried holding a smile for longer than 10 seconds, you know that it gets exponentially more fake and uncomfortable.

“If you look at the early processes where you did have a long exposure time,” says Todd Gustavson, technology curator at the George Eastman Museum, “you’re going to pick a pose that’s comfortable.”

Possibility #3: Adherence to artistic convention

In classic art, not many of the depicted figures are smiling. Angus Trumble says that “wide smiles were associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous.” This was reflected in classic painting and seemed to carry over into photography.

So why are we smiling for photos now?

The invention of the quick-snap camera in the 1920s changed everything in three ways. Processing was instant so no one had to “hold a smile.” Anyone could be a photographer as no one had to rely on elaborate setups. And photography quickly became an art in and of itself with new conventions: one of them being smiling subjects.

And we can all be grateful for that this holiday season.

If you liked this blog, check out our previous blog for tips on smiling for photos.

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