Why Didn’t People In The Old Days Smile In Their Portraits?

If you browse through a handful portraits that were taken back in the early days of photography, you’ll notice two recurring themes: the pictures are in black and white and most of the subject/s in the picture weren’t smiling when they had their portraits taken.

Obviously, cameras back then weren’t sophisticated enough to produce a colored photograph, so that easily explains the first one. But what about the other recurring theme? Why do people back then refused to flash their pearly whites on their portraits?

One plausible explanation as to why people back then preferred to don a poker face rather than appear jovial on their portrait is because of the limitations of the cameras during that time. Early versions of the Daguerreotype, which was the first and most famous photographic process in the early 19th century, was notorious for its long exposure time.

How long, you might ask? Well, if the person who commissioned the portrait was lucky enough, he/she just had to hold their smile for five minutes. However, if not all the conditions are met (proper lighting, right amount of chemical used on the plate, etc.) the exposure time could take as long as thirty minutes.

Holding a smile for five minutes is already arduous, imagine doing it for half an hour. Hence, we can understand why the closest thing that people got to a smile at that time was a simple smirk which doesn’t really portray their humorous or playful side.

As time went by though, people experimented on different techniques to speed up the photographic process by using different chemicals on the camera plates and putting on a “faster” lens on the camera. As a result, they were able to significantly cut down the exposure time to just under a minute.

With the equipment and photographic process out of the equation, one would assume that people back then would’ve been able to express themselves more freely on their portraits, right?

“…a portrait was never so much a record of a person, but a formalized ideal. The ambition was not to capture a moment, but a moral certainty.”

– Nicholas Jeeves, The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture

Truth be told, the limitation of the photographic equipment back in the days is hardly the reason for the lack of happiness on people’s faces in their portraits. It actually has more to do with how society viewed portraiture (both the process and the end result) rather than the medium used to capture a particular moment.

Having one’s portrait painted or photographed was treated with utmost importance since it’s likely that it may only happen once in their lifetime, not to mention it requires a pretty penny to commission one. As such, people back then chose to be immortalized with a stern look on their faces that conveys a sense of distinction and propriety, instead of donning a gregarious façade that was regarded, in the past at least, as undesirable.

So yes, if portraiture back then was as easy as pressing a button like it is nowadays, and if they weren’t living in a time dictated by conservative ideals, I think that people in the past wouldn’t have been so reluctant to express their happiness on their portraits. And perhaps they would’ve gladly struck a wacky pose once or twice just for the hell of it.

References: 1 & 2

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