Portrait: Why didn’t people smile in times past?


Looking at old portrait photographs, you inevitably come to the conclusion that people scarcely used to smile in the past. If this phenomenon is to be observed in the realm of photography only, you might think it’s got to do with the universal technique of former portraiture. As a reminder: when photography was invented, you had to expose a shot for several seconds to minutes even in favourable lighting conditions. Who can actually smile completely motionlessly for such a long time? It’s not just on photos but also on paintings that the deadly serious countenances can be observed. According to Nicholas Jeeves, who extensively occupied himself with this topic in the article „The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture”, reasons for not smiling were probably due to the miserable reputation the smile had for a long time amongst the upper class and clerical circles.


A broad smile was considered a breach of polite society’s etiquette, or in other words, a conduct exclusively reserved for the poor, drunkards and entertainers. Furthermore, the church was long of the opinion that God gave us lips primarily to conceal our teeth. And as we all know from our history books, rebelling against church when it was at the zenith of power was no bed of roses. 😉

Naturally, technology in photography as well as in painting can be listed as another reason. Maintaining an authentic smile is difficult per se, but even more difficult to capture photographically and painterly in such short time. A nice smile is no conscious facial expression but rather a fleeting, automatic reaction that might even overexert nowadays’ fast cameras.

As I am nowhere near as eloquent as Jeeves, I would recommend reading the highly interesting, partly involuntarily funny article. It definitely pays off! 🙂

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