Why does vintage photography gives some people "the willies”? Whether or not you've noticed this, the portrait subjects in the oldest black and white images are almost always glaring sternly into the lens.
I love antiques and visiting vintage shops. In my years of browsing through those dusty old shelves (with their musty yet oddly satisfying odor), I've collected dozens of stereographs. These are side-by-side photographic prints of nearly identical images, which create a three-dimensional image when viewed through a stereoscopic viewer. Stereography’s invention by Sir Charles Wheatstonef in 1838 — only 22 years after the first primitive photograph — is historically remarkable.
My fascination with stereography has produced a small library of vintage stereograph portraits ranging across a wide array of subjects. It includes images of proud or stoic Native Americans, high-collared aristocrats, even a U.S. president. But the subjects rarely have even a faint smile. What’s with all that grimness?
The most significant explanation for the glum faces in vintage portraits is a technical one: long exposure times. In late 19th to early 20th century, photographic film wasn't as sensitive to light as modern film (or camera sensors) and required exposure times of several seconds to several minutes. Those minutes-long exposures did become less common as advancements in film were made throughout the 1900s.
Since any movement during a long exposure could create "ghosting" aberrations and ruin the sharpness of a photo, subjects were instructed to sit absolutely still during portrait sessions. Smiling requires many facial muscles to work in unison, but those muscles don't have the stamina to sit stay fixed over the course of several minutes. Some past accounts describe children being harnessed to chairs to keep them still enough for a long exposure.
How hard is it (for someone not a professional model) to hold a long smile for a camera? An entertaining 2010 case of smiling angst led to the "Hide the Pain Harold" meme: a desperately grinning Hungarian fellow who became an internet sensation for his bizarre grimace in various photo sets, apparently due to facial fatigue from forcing a smile during long photo shoots.
Also theorized as contributing to the lack of cheery faces in old-time portraits is the fact that dental care wasn't as commonplace or advanced in the 19th century. The typical solution for decaying teeth was to pull them. No wonder people were reluctant to show their off their chompers.
Vanity and High Society
Cultural factors also see to have contributed to the lack of smiling in those early photographic portraits. First, the then-popular genre of "post-mortem photography" influenced a deadly serious (as it were) demeanor even in photos of the living. The grisly act of posing the dead as animate beings didn't exactly popularize smiling photo portraits. That photographic fashion tapered off early in the 20th century. I don't see it making a comeback anytime soon.
Additionally, smiling was once seen by the elite as a sign of idiocy. And since photography used to be a luxury exclusively enjoyed by the wealthy, the culture of dignity and seriousness may have also impacted the demeanor of photographic subjects.
There are, however, exceptions to the aristocratic zeitgeist of photography from the late 19th and early 20th century. Although photographed smiles of this period were rare, they can be found. A Flickr group has been dedicated to finding and re-posting the elusive "Smiling Victorian."
Historians and sociologists have offered various explanations (beyond long exposure times) for the rarity of cheerful expressions in vintage photographs, but the larger picture might have had to do with something we still work with today: the shifting vicissitudes of individuals and culture.
Smiling always has cultural connotations. Smiling at a stranger in North America can make a different impression from state to state and city to city. Whereas a smiling stranger might be seen as welcome in a socially relaxed area, that stranger could be taken as naive or even suspicious in a more conservative place. Suspicion can also prevail in some big cities, where eye contact is commonly avoided as a method of self-preservation.
Are there examples of photography from that era that make you wonder what was behind their smile (or lack thereof)? Please share with us in the comments section.
Lead image/s via Wikimedia Commons, all are in the public domain.