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Published 3 years ago with 8 Comments
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  • DokterDuke
    +13

    In early photography, the length of time required for exposure of the "silver plate" was quite long and since it is easier to maintain an expressionless face for a length of time than it is to hold a smile, and not move, that might be the reason. Now, once flash powder came along and improvements were made to the chemical composition of the plates on which the negative image was burned, the exposure time was greatly reduced. Why people didn't start smiling then is a good question. Perhaps it was just the fact that "no one else smiles so I'm not going to smile and look silly". Today, it is the social norm to smile. If someone stood there with no expression like the old photos, we would think they were strange.

    • ttubravesrock (edited 3 years ago)
      +7

      case in point: me.

      I am extremely unphotogenic. I'd go as far as to say that I'm photophobic. I'm actually uncomfortable if there is a camera out and I'm not the one holding it. People always look at pictures of me and say something along the lines of 'you look like a serial killer in this picture' or 'you look like someone killed your dog.'

    • FivesandSevens
      +5

      Perhaps it was just the fact that "no one else smiles so I'm not going to smile and look silly".

      That's pretty much exactly it! The "no one else" they were thinking of, though, was hundreds of years of painted portraits that were preserved as family heirlooms. They were emulating the only precedent for photo portraits they had in their culture (their only frame of reference, yuk yuk) - one that was about preserving your likeness for generations to come, and one in which appearing frivolous was frowned upon. So at first their expressions were culturally determined and reinforced by the long exposure times of available tech. Later - as shutter speeds increased, cameras became cheaper and easier to use, and photography moved out of studios - they loosened up a good deal around cameras. There are quite a few photos of smiling from after about 1890 or so.

  • FivesandSevens
    +6

    I wrote a paper about this once. As the article points out, Victorians were very aware of the "portraiture" and "heirloom" aspects of photography and concerned that their likeness be preserved in ways that they hoped would give them dignity in the memory of later generations. That being said, they were fun-loving, even bawdy (if not by modern standards) folks. Check out what they did in photo booths (a later invention) when the pressure of portraiture was off!

    • ressmox
      +5

      Very interesting link! Thanks for sharing. Do you still have any bits of that paper lying around? I'd be interested in reading it if you wouldn't mind.

      • FivesandSevens
        +6

        Sadly, it died along with an old external hard drive a few years ago. Not sure I'd want to share it though. It was mostly the ramblings of an enthusiastic but uninformed sophomore history major. However, I just looked and was able to find the book I used as my main secondary source: The Victorians: Photographic Portraits by Audrey Linkman. It's a pretty good book, as I recall, and far more interesting than my paper!

  • DrunkOldMan
    +5

    I was thinking there might not be too much to smile about back then, life was pretty hardcore back then.

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