The wrong question of the day is: Why People Never Smiled in Old Photographs. I wish I could report that we know what the answer is. Phil Edwards certainly provides us with a few ideas. The one that everyone that I know just assumes is right is slow film speed: everyone had to remain perfectly still for a long time. But this has never made much sense to me. I don’t find it any easier to hold a frown than a smile. And you would think that some people in the sea of glum would smile. But we don’t see much of that.
A couple of other ideas seem silly to me. One is, “Early photographs were seen as a passage to immortality.” This goes along with one of these creepy pictures of a corpse — made famous in the film The Others. The question then just turns to why all these people thought eternity was so glum. And a picture of a dead guy is obviously not going to be smiling. Another idea is, “Victorian and Edwardian culture looked down on smiling.” It turns out there are actually a fair number of photos — especially from the Edwardian period where everyone is smiling. And I think that is part of the answer.
Edwards gets closest to the issue with this idea, “Early photography was heavily influenced by painting — which meant no smiling.” This, of course, brings up its own question: why didn’t people smile in paintings? I think the answer to both questions is that sitting for a painting or an early photograph was an exhausting experience. It wasn’t a question of how long they had to wait for the exposure; it was a matter of how long they had to wait for the photographer to get everything set up. So even people who started off smiling didn’t end up that way. It’s similar to the end of a really long, boring business meeting: no one is smiling.
The other issue is that because taking a photo was such a big deal, people tended to be somber about it. And so it did become something of a style. And I doubt there was anything really special in the fact that most people weren’t smiling. People don’t generally smile; they just have what would be termed neutral faces. The people in these old pictures aren’t frowning. They just have normal expressions.
There is one man who everyone thinks of as dour, Arthur Schopenhauer. Yet in half of the photographs of them, he is smiling. Well, maybe it is more correct to say that he is smirking. And to me, that is exactly who he was: a man who was lightly amused at the absurdity of existence. So maybe who we really are is found in those 19th century photos.
Edwards presents the photo at the top of this article as a curious anomaly. It is of a Chinese man in 1904, taken by the anthropologist Berthold Laufer. And Edwards thinks both men’s status as outsiders might have something to do with the playfulness of the image. But I have a more straightforward view of it: maybe they were just both having a good time. Maybe they were both drunk. Regardless, I think the image is a good indication of what was happening before and after the photo. And I think that’s true of the other photos where no one is smiling.
What I find more strange is that everyone feels the need to smile in photographs we take today. I find most family pictures these days incredibly fake — like everyone is pretending to be happy. I think they are just us trying to lie to the world because by now we understand the power of photographs to shape perspectives. There are lots of pictures of Ernest Hemingway smiling, yet he wasn’t a happy man. That seems stranger to me than the fact that people in pictures from 150 years ago look the way people normally look when they aren’t getting their pictures taken.