A Rare Smile Captured in a 19th Century Photograph

Just look at this pho­to. Just look at this young girl’s smile. We know her name: O‑o-dee. And we know that she was a mem­ber of the Kiowa tribe in the Okla­homa Ter­ri­to­ry. And we know that the pho­to was tak­en in 1894. But that smile is like a time machine. O‑o-dee might just as well have donned some traditional/historical garb, posed for her friends, and had them put on the ol’ sepia fil­ter on her cam­era app.

But why? What is it about the smile?

For one thing, we are not used to see­ing them in old pho­tographs, espe­cial­ly ones from the 19th cen­tu­ry. When pho­tog­ra­phy was first invent­ed, expo­sures could take 45 min­utes. Hav­ing a por­trait tak­en meant sit­ting stock still for a very long time, so smil­ing was right out. It was only near the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry that shut­ter speeds improved, as did emul­sions, mean­ing that spon­ta­neous moments could be cap­tured. Still, smil­ing was not part of many cul­tures. It could be seen as unseem­ly or undig­ni­fied, and many peo­ple rarely sat for pho­tos any­way. Pho­tographs were seen by many peo­ple as a “pas­sage to immor­tal­i­ty” and seri­ous­ness was seen as less ephemer­al.

Pres­i­dents didn’t offi­cial­ly smile until Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, which came at a time of great sor­row and uncer­tain­ty for a nation in the grips of the Great Depres­sion. The pres­i­dent did it because Amer­i­cans couldn’t.

Smil­ing seems so nat­ur­al to us, it’s hard to think it hasn’t always been a part of art. One of the first thing babies learn is the pow­er of a smile, and how it can melt hearts all around. So why hasn’t the smile been com­mon­place in art?

His­to­ri­an Col­in Jones wrote a whole book about this, called The Smile Rev­o­lu­tion in Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry Paris, start­ing with a 1787 self-por­trait by Élis­a­beth Vigée Le Brun that depict­ed her and her infant. Unlike the coy half-smiles as seen in the Mona Lisa, Madame Le Brun’s paint­ing showed the first white, toothy smile. Jones says it caused a scandal–smiles like this one were undig­ni­fied. The only broad smiles seen in Renais­sance paint­ing were from chil­dren (who didn’t know bet­ter), the filthy plebiscite, or the insane. What had hap­pened? Jones cred­its the change to two things: the emer­gence of den­tistry over the pre­vi­ous hun­dred years (includ­ing the inven­tion of the tooth­brush), and the emer­gence of a “cult of sen­si­bil­i­ty and polite­ness.” Jones explains this by look­ing at the hero­ines of the 18th cen­tu­ry nov­el, where a smile meant an open heart, and not a sar­cas­tic smirk:

Now, O‑o-dee and Jane Austen’s Emma might have been worlds apart, but so are we–creatures of tech­nol­o­gy, smil­ing at our iPhones as we take anoth­er selfie–from that Kiowan girl in the Fort Sill, Okla­homa stu­dio of George W. Bretz.

via PetaPix­el

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Arab Pho­tog­ra­phy Archive Puts 22,000 His­toric Images Online: Get a Rare Glimpse into Life and Art in the Arab World

Take a Visu­al Jour­ney Through 181 Years of Street Pho­tog­ra­phy (1838–2019)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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