Why Nobody Smiles in Old Photos: The Technological & Cultural Reasons Behind All those Black-and-White Frowns

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

See the First Pho­to­graph of a Human Being: A Pho­to Tak­en by Louis Daguerre (1838)

See The First “Self­ie” In His­to­ry Tak­en by Robert Cor­nelius, a Philadel­phia Chemist, in 1839

The First Known Pho­to­graph of Peo­ple Shar­ing a Beer (1843)

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

Vis­it a New Dig­i­tal Archive of 2.2 Mil­lion Images from the First Hun­dred Years of Pho­tog­ra­phy

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.


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