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Seriously, Smiles? December 13, 2016

Posted by nrhatch in Art & Photography, Happiness, Humor, People.

grumpy_thinkingIn old photos, dating back to the 1820’s, few subjects smiled.

Some have conjectured that the lack of smiles correlated with the lack of dental care . . . or the long exposure times.

A recent article in TIME magazine suggests that it had more to do with the mores of the day:

Experts say that the deeper reason for the lack of smiles early on is that photography took guidance from pre-existing customs in painting—an art form in which many found grins uncouth and inappropriate for portraiture. Though saints might be depicted with faint smiles, wider smiles were “associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous,” says Trumble.

And since most photographs had professional photographers behind the lens, they called the shots:

. . . high-end studio photographers would create an elegant setting and direct the subject how to behave, producing the staid expressions which are so familiar in 19th century photographs. The images they created were formal and befitted the expense of paying to have a portrait made, especially when that portrait might be the only image of someone.

So when did we start smiling in photos?

With the rise of snapshot photography!

“Take the camera out of the professional and put it into the hands of the snapshot photographer and then they can do whatever they want” says Gustavson.

Aah . . . that’s better!

To read more:  Now You Know:  Why Do People Always Look So Serious in Old Photos?



1. Jill Weatherholt - December 13, 2016

I’m all for the snapshot photographers, but enough with the selfies!
Cute photo of you, Nancy. 🙂

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

Selfies are indicative of our current obsession with outward appearances and how we are perceived by others. These days, it’s not who you are that matters, it’s how you appear to peers enjoying the peep show on social media.

It’s all smoke and mirrors, baby!

Jill Weatherholt - December 13, 2016

Definitely…especially for the younger generation. Personally, I can’t stand having my picture taken. I don’t like to be the center of attention…I like to lay low. 🙂

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

Most of the time, I’m happy to be the photographer . . . rather than the photographed. But I’m OK with the occasional silly pose, as above.

2. Rainee - December 13, 2016

That was interesting history and it makes sense. I love the one of you hanging out :). Funny how your hair didn’t give way to gravity.

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

My hair is very well behaved! 😀

3. Morgan - December 13, 2016

These just made me smile 🙂

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

Excellent! Have a day overflowing with smiles, Morgan.

4. suzicate - December 13, 2016

Interesting. Now, those zebras know how to have a good time…love how those toothy grins capture the essence of their personalities.

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

Exactly! Zebra grins are contagious.

5. Kate Crimmins - December 13, 2016

My aunt and uncle had formal portraits of my paternal grandparents. Each one was a head and shoulder shot in an oval frame with curved glass. My grandmother had a very Victorian blouse with a high frilly collar and a sweeping updo (I’m guess circa 1880s-90s). Those pictures were lost when my uncle died and aunt fell into Alzheimers. I have offered anyone knowing the whereabouts a ransom even without the frames (which may have been worth money). Oh yes, no one was smiling. Good lord! How uncouth that would be. I don’t have any pictures of my grandmother (she died before I was born) and just a very few blurry ones (snapshots) of my granddad. He was always smiling.

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

We had painted portraits of my great-grandparents hanging in the hall of my parents’ house . . . with STERN expressions. I always imagined they were chastising me for being “frivolous.” 😀

Hope the offered ransom helps you track down the portraits of your paternal grandparents.

Kate Crimmins - December 13, 2016

The ransom was offered 20 years ago so there is no hope. Someone probably took them for the frames and discarded the photos.

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

Well, at least you have that adorable photo of you dressed in your Christmas best!

6. Ally Bean - December 13, 2016

Interesting information. This makes sense to me. I remember reading that in the 1890s a girl’s diary would be about how she wanted to be of good character, never about how she looked or how other people behaved. Kind of fits into the idea of not smiling for a photo. Seriousness all around.

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

We are far more superficial these days ~ instead of content and character, people rely on cosmetics. 😀

7. William D'Andrea - December 13, 2016

My sister now has our mother’s old photo album, containing many pictures that were taken when we were children, back in the 1950’s.
About two years ago, I was visiting her, along with a guy and his wife, who attend my church. My sister took out the old album, for us to look at. One photo shows her when she was about 7, standing with two other girls, outside the apartment house in Sunnyside, Queens, New York City, where we grew up. In this picture my sister, who’s holding a doll, has a very nasty look on her face, while sticking her tongue out at the camera.
When I looked at it, during our visit, I asked my sister, “You haven’t changed a bit, have you?”
She laughed and said, “You’re right. I haven’t.”

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

That’s a great share. I love looking at photos of the 4 of us when we were kids, especially the ones with goofy grins.

8. Tippy Gnu - December 13, 2016

I like the smiling zebras. I go along with the old notions. Smiling is a sign of madness and dementia. I say this because I’m a Scandiwhovian who is smile-challenged, due to my frozen DNA.

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

Bwahaha! I can’t argue with you since I’ve never seen you smile.

9. Tiny - December 13, 2016

Great post! I’m smiling. I thought of Mona Lisa… she is smiling, or is she? That was a great compromise 😀

nrhatch - December 13, 2016

I thought of her too ~ a hint of a smile!

10. Under the Oaks - December 14, 2016

I like my feeties shots… don’t like to smile for the camera… 😀

nrhatch - December 14, 2016

I like your feeties shots too!

11. Barb - December 15, 2016

I always thought the grimaces were because the subjects had to hold still for so long while the film was exposed and it was easier to stare like a statue than grin for a minute, but it makes sense that it would be cultural. I’m not sure how we’ll explain the duck face culture a hundred years from now.

nrhatch - December 15, 2016

Yes, the most frequently proffered rationale for the grim grimaces is just an Urban (and Suburban) Legend.

Instead, it’s just peeps being sheeps and doing what they’re told.

12. L. Marie - December 15, 2016

Great photo, Nancy! It made me smile. (Barb’s comment is hilarious!)

nrhatch - December 15, 2016

Barb is always hilarious . . . especially when she ain’t behaving!

Have you seen her recent post about misadventures of the reunion kind? She hopped into every candid shot and flashed a toothy grin.

13. Behind the Story - December 17, 2016

Love those laughing zebras–one of them falling down laughing.

There was also a technical reason to keep a straight face. If you go all the way back to the early daguerreotype images, the exposure took about twenty minutes. By the early 1840s it still took about twenty seconds, not so long, but it was still a long time to keep a fresh smile.

nrhatch - December 17, 2016

Imagine how dusty selfie-sticks would become if we reverted to exposures requiring 20 minutes instead of 20 nanoseconds!

When someone sets a time-delay so they can hop into a group shot, it is hard to hold a smile until the shutter releases.

14. livelytwist - December 19, 2016

Interesting info. I’m glad for the times in which we live, where we can have serious photographs and fun photographs. 🙂

nrhatch - December 19, 2016

Agreed! Old photos were often quite morbid looking.

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