The Real Reason No One Ever Smiled In Old Photographs


If you spend too much time looking at old
black and white photographs, you might come to the conclusion that everyone who ever existed
before a hundred years ago was perpetually miserable. After all, no one ever really smiles in those
old photos — but why not? Did it just really, really suck to be a human
in the 1800s and early 1900s? Or was it seen as somehow unfashionable to
show off that you were happy? “Smile.” “No.” Actually, it’s none of the above. You see, the most likely reason is that people
back then had to compensate for the limited capabilities of those old cameras. Before the 1850s and 1860s it took multiple
seconds to capture a single exposure, so you would have to hold your pose until the exposure
was complete. Obviously, that could take a long time, and
trying to hold a fake smile for ages isn’t exactly comfortable. That’s also why some of those old photos are
kind of on the blurry side — which isn’t nearly the creepiest thing about them, by
the way. No, the rea lly disturbing thing about photography
at this time was that people used to take photos of the recently deceased to serve as
keepsakes for their families. And in these photos, you can often tell which
person is the corpse just by the fact that the dead person is in tack-sharp focus — while
everyone else is slightly blurry. The fact that we used to play Weekend at Bernie’s
with dead people also points to a whole different mindset when it came to 19th century photography. Life was difficult back then after all, and
photographs were far rarer — so people didn’t mess about with them. Even legendary humorist Mark Twain took them
seriously. The writer once said: “I think a photograph is a most important
document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish
smile caught and fixed forever.” Old photos were considered almost a technological
form of mummification — more of a solemn event than a portrait of a fleeting moment
in time. And if you think about it, people weren’t
used to taking photos back then like they are today and probably weren’t really sure
what to do. So why would they sit there grinning like
idiots? Things slowly began to change around the end
of the 1800s, though, because as camera technology improved people no longer had to hold their
poses for long periods of time. Though the exposures were still long by today’s
standards, by 1900 cameras like the Brownie had finally made smiling possible in photographs. Generally credited with bringing the snapshot
to the masses, the Brownie was sold for $1 at the turn of the 20th century, which would
be around $30 today. Its low cost allowed it to sell over 150,000
copies in its first year, helping Kodak popularize mass photography. All this stems from one weird truth — humans
don’t have any natural instinct to smile in front of the camera. Instead, it was learned over time, and in
the early days of photography, people thought of having their photo taken as another version
of portraiture; the only difference being that you didn’t have to sit still for as long. And in those old paintings, most people weren’t
smiling, either. The lack of toothy grins in those old photos
are likely just an extension of those established traditions, dating back well before the invention
of the camera. In fact, an 1894 Photographic Journal of America
interview with a model named Elmer Ellsworth Masterman seems to confirm this idea. Masterman had the unique honor of posing as
Jesus for both paintings and photographs during his career, and he didn’t differentiate between
the two lines of work. He asked: “What is the difference between posing for
a photograph and posing for a painting?” Well, at the time, there wasn’t much of a
difference — but there is now, that’s for sure. God only knows what Masterman would have made
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12 Replies to “The Real Reason No One Ever Smiled In Old Photographs”

  1. People were also sceptical about photography and some thought that taking their picture would damage their soul. Particularly religious people and those of certain faiths

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