Did Someone Forgot to Say “Cheeeeese?”

Why didn’t people smile in old photographs? My husband and I have often asked this

No smiles in this photo.

No smiles in this photo.

question. He believes it’s because it was a very different time when life was hard and smiles were not plentiful. When looking at old photographs you can almost see the hardships they have experienced, including much sorrow, expressed in their eyes? Just a short distance from us is a cemetery where a stroll among stones indicate the loss of several children in one family. Husbands spent lifetimes with wives and never expressed a doubt to them. Wives spent lifetimes with husbands and never expected the husband to help or understand. No one ever spoke of divorce. I read where a funeral was the only photo opportunity family members had and this was not really an occasion to be smiling.

Today digital cameras allow us to snap hundreds of photos, catching the moment, but no smiles in photos 3back in the 1800’s, photographing and portrait painting was about more than catching the moment, it was about depicting the person and their character. When photography was new, a person being photogaphed was expected to remain still. Grinning exercised far too many muscles. People would tire out, change their expression and ruin the daguerreotype.

Daguerreotype, a photographic process, was introduced in 1839. I know many of you

Set up for photo taking.

Set up for daguerreotype taking.

have seen these, perhaps among old family photos or in antique shops. The image is on a mirror-like surface of metallic silver and sometimes appears either positive or negative. You may have heard them called tintypes and they are usually housed in ornamental cases. We have one of them among our family photos, unfortunately it remains unidentified. Exposure time for the daguerreotypes could be up to 15 minutes, sometimes longer. Photographers even had head rests that held sitters’ heads in place. So, having to sit still for several minutes probably discouraged smiling.

A couple of other suggestions on why people didn’t smile for photographs are that

Not one chose to smile.

Not one of them chose to smile.

since having pictures taken was rare and expensive, people may have believed that serious expressions suited these special occasions. The last theory is that people were not comfortable smiling because of very unattractive teeth. There were no root canals or caps back then. When a tooth became decayed or broken it was simply pulled.

While looking for old photographs as example of the seriousness people expressed

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

while having their photo taken, I came upon a photo of Abraham Lincoln, one that was used many times and must have been a favorite of his. I did see one where he was smiling, but the serious one is preferred. It is definitely old Abe, and it does define his character. Portraits were meant to evoke character, one of distinguished, refined elegance on canvas. Yet today, everyone smiles when a photo is taken. Is it because we are expected to look happy?

There are times that I have been frustrated with photo taking and this was long after the

This is an example of the daguerreotypes.

This is an example of the daguerreotypes.

daguerreotype. Even using 45mm, or even digital, when I am told to smile by the time the photo is taken, my smile has turned into a smirk, and this is in just seconds. Mark Twain opined that it was risky to have to hold a smile until it looked forced, fixed, and frozen (and stupid) so even though, not smiling, made people look grim, they usually chose to simply let the face relax as naturally as possible so the position could be held through out the photographing. Twain thought since photographs were expensive, people were loath to take a risk of spending the money on something that would look foolish. One woman felt having photographs of one self was like presenting yourself to the public and she did not want to be smiling at them. Instead, a maidenly reserve was preferred.

Well, so much for trying to decipher why, years ago, people didn’t smile for pictures. I’m sure you have opinions on this subject. It may have been that the early photographer was trying to capture and record tangible flesh, hair and clothing, not moods or personalities? I can’t help but feel that there is nothing better than a sincere, delightful, warm smile, even in a photograph. Let me know what you think.

6 thoughts on “Did Someone Forgot to Say “Cheeeeese?”

  1. I really dislike forced smiles in photos, but I think they look better than some of the frowns seen in these photos! I seem to do best if I don’t smile until just when the photo is taken and then I smile as if I am so pleased to see the person taking the photo. Usually, I am! The whole taking photos was such a new idea to people, as you have pointed out, that they probably didn’t quite know what to make of it. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be putting a frowning photo of me online any time soon!


    • Thanks for writing, Janine. Coming from a professional photographer like you, I’m going to take your suggestions to heart. Yes, it was a new process to people. Some thought taking their picture was the same as taking their soul. I’m glad we’re past those days.


  2. I agree people probably didn’t smile because life was hard…I don’t remember my Grandma Ryan ever smiling very much…but she was always very loving. I’m with Janine when it comes to taking a picture…I wait till just before the pic is taken…otherwise my smile feels fake. You come up with the most interesting things to write about…have a great rest of the week.


    • It just wouldn’t seem right if without comments from my regulars. Thanks Karen for you input on this subject. How sweet your grandmother was, she must have been smiling in her heart.


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