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aking photos started to become the biggest trend of the 19th century which everyone seemed to take very seriously based on the lack of smiles in these photos. For many years now historians have been trying to explain the reason why people didn’t smile in photos during the 19th century and early 20th century. Many theories have been developed over the years by different experts, but there is a deeper meaning behind the lack of smiles within these photos

Before getting to this deeper meaning, let’s go through some of the existing theories behind this phenomenon.


Bad teeth

We all know that personal hygiene during the 19th century wasn’t the best and the average person would most probably have bad teeth or even a lot of missing teeth. Because of this reason, some historians such as Nicholas Jeeves believe that bad teeth were normal during that era, therefore they were not considered undesirable.

At the same time, people weren’t so judgemental to actually care about what others thought of their appearance. If this theory were to be true, then why didn’t people with good teeth smile in photos? You can argue that it was not to put those with bad teeth in a negative image, but it is unknown if people actually cared that much.

Technology

The most common theory out there is arguing that it is because of technological drawbacks. During the early 19th century, the first generation of cameras could have taken a few minutes to actually set up and prepare to take a photo. It is really difficult and uncomfortable to keep a smile for a few seconds, let alone a couple of minutes.

Todd Gustavson, technology curator at the George Eastman Museum states that this “limiting factor” was acceptable until the 1850s when the new generation of cameras came out which allowed under the right conditions for the photo to be taken in a few seconds. Even if this were to be the case, you would still have a person here or there that would still keep a smile for as long as it took to take a photo just for the sake of it.

Christina Kotchemidova, a professor studying culture and communication had also argued the technological reason in a paper she wrote entitled Why We say “Cheese”. Her argument is that our society thinks that it is natural to smile for a picture, but smiling in front of a camera is not an instinctive response.

Before the fake smiles provided in most social media posts, people had to be told to smile when a photo was taken. This is because a natural smile is brought by happy emotions and whilst taking a photo can positively enhance someone’s emotions, staring at a camera lens will rarely bring out a natural smile.

Photographic expertise

Some experts from the world of photography say that the deeper reason behind this is that people followed the customs of portrait paintings before photography existed. In most portraits during and before the Victorian era people would look serious, they would not smile because they had to sit in the same posture for hours on end for the painter to draw them.

Others say that smiling wasn’t elegant enough for a photo as people would have different smiles. Some would have a longer smile, some would show their teeth whilst others would not. A custom during the early 19th century was to for the photographer to say “prunes” instead of “cheese” in order to make people purse their lips so this would create the effect of a small mouth.

Making everyone look quite similar with a small mouth. Other contemporary experts within photography say that because of the rarity of this service during the early 19th century, people would treat a family photo very seriously, especially when you could not have any retakes as this would cost more. In fact, until the photo would not be developed, you would not know how well or bad the photo came out, so would you risk it with a bad smile?

Even Mark Twain supported this argument in one of this writings by saying:

“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.” (Quote by Mark Twain)

This could be part of the reason, as such things were taken very seriously back in the day.

The psychology behind the real reason

The most argued and in my opinion plausible reason is the way people wanted to be perceived. Painted portraits of royal family members throughout the world had them pose in a very serious stature that would showcase their opulence and power. Even if social media didn’t exist 200 years ago, people still acclaimed the famous and wanted to follow in their footsteps so that they are seen better by society.

Those who chose to smile were seen as poor, drunk, unlawful, and clownish. The idea of having that photo forever scared many people to the point where they wanted to make sure it was perfect and it would represent them as the perfect ancestors.

Photography at the start of the 19th century was very formal, just like a painter drawing a portrait. This sort of formality made people respect the service not only because of its rarity but because they knew that the picture which was taken would be unique and framed forever in history. People offered a lot more respect to those things because this was new technology for them and they weren’t going to take it for granted.

A Victorian Couple Trying Not To Laugh While Getting Their Portraits Done, 1890s (Source: RareHistoricalPhotos)

The development of technology was very much respected, especially in a time where innovation mainly took place within the industrial sector. Despite all of this, by the end of the 19th century/ start of the 20th-century people started to smile in photos that were taken informally. Cameras started to become more affordable and sold as a product for everyone to own, this allowed people to take photos of others without them knowing, while they were naturally smiling.

This collage of photos from the late 19th century actually proves this point. When people aren’t aware that a photo is being taken they used to smile and laugh, whilst when the photo was announced they would take a very serious stance.

This proves that being serious in photos was more of a social norm and this reasoning is supported by Christina Kotchemidova who argues that the professionality of 19th-century photographers and the etiquette of professional photography pushed these artists to tell people not to smile.

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