We’ve all heard stories of kids who ask their parents if the world was really black-and-white in the 1950s, or maybe even been those kids ourselves. With that matter cleared up, children who’ve seen even older colorless photographs — say, from around the turn of the 20th century — may follow up with another question: hadn’t they invented smiling back then? If they ask you (or if you’ve wondered about it yourself), you can take care of it in just three minutes by pulling up this Vox explainer on why people never smiled in old photos. Why, in the words of Phil Edwards writing on the video’s accompanying page, “did people in old photos look like they’d just heard the worst news of their life?”
“We can’t know for sure, but a few theories help us guess what was behind all that black-and-white frowning.” The first, and the one you may already know, has to do with the camera technology of the day, whose “long exposure times — the time a camera needs to take a picture — made it important for the subject of a picture to stay as still as possible. That way, the picture wouldn’t look blurry.” But by the year 1900 that problem was more or less solved “with the introduction of the Brownie and other cameras,” which were “still slow by today’s standards, but not so slow that it was impossible to smile.”
Other theories explaining the smile-free photographs of old include the lingering influence of the painted portrait on the photographic portrait; the dominant idea of photography as a “passage to immortality” that “meant the medium was predisposed to seriousness over the ephemeral”; and that Victorian and Edwardian culture itself took a dim view of smiling, supported by a survey of smiling in portraits conducted by Nicholas Jeeves at the Public Domain Review that “came to the conclusion that there was a centuries-long history of viewing smiling as something only buffoons did.” Yet late 19th-century and early 20th-century photography isn’t a completely smile-free zone, as the Flickr group The Smiling Victorian proves.
Edwards includes a picture, taken circa 1904, of a man smiling not just unmistakably but hugely. He does so as he prepares to dig into a bowl of rice, that being an important part of the cuisine of China, where Asian-language scholar Berthold Laufer took an expedition to capture the everyday life of the Chinese people on film. “His rice-loving subject may have been willing to grin because he was from a different culture with its own sensibility concerning photography and public behavior,” Edwards writes. Whatever the reasons for the smile on that Chinese face or the lack of one on all those Victorians and Edwardians, we must prepare ourselves to answer an even more difficult question from posterity: one about why, exactly, we’re doing what we’re doing in the billions of photos we now take of ourselves every day.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.