Why Don't People in Old Photographs Ever Seem to Smile? and

Why Did Men Thrust Their Right Hand into Their Jackets in Old Photographs?


From How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? By David Feldman



Why Don't People in Old Photographs Ever Seem to Smile?


Sometimes, the more you delve into an Imponderable, the murkier it becomes. We asked about twenty experts in photography and photographic history, and the early responses were fairly consistent: The subjects in old photographs weren't all depressed; the slowness of the exposure time was the culprit. In some cases, the exposure time in early daguerreotypes was up to ten minutes. Typical was the answer of Frank Calandra, secretary/treasurer of the Photographic Historical Society:


Nineteenth-century photographic materials were nowhere near as light-sensitive as today's films. This meant that instead of the fractional second exposure times we take for granted, the pioneer photographers needed several minutes to properly set an image on a sensitized plate. While this was fine for landscapes, buildings and other still-lifes, portraits called for many tricks to help subjects hold perfectly still while the shutter was open. (The first cameras had no shutter. A cap was placed over the lens and the photographer would remove it to begin the exposure and replace it when time was up.)


Holding a smile for that length of time can be uncomfortable; that's why you see the same somber look on early portraits. That's what a relaxed face looks like.


If that's so, Frank, we'll look jittery, anytime.


Of course, the problem with trying to hold a smile for a long period of time isn't only that it is difficult. The problem is that the smile looks phony. Photographer Wilton Wong told Imponderables that even today,


A good portraitist will not ask subjects to smile and have them hold it even for more than a few seconds, as the smile starts looking forced. With the long exposures of old, the smiles would look phony and detract from the photo. Look at yourself in the mirror with a thirty-second smile on your face!


The stationary of the Photographic Historical Association depicts a head clamp, which, although it looks like an instrument of torture, was used during the early days of photography to prevent a subject's head from moving while being photographed. In order to avoid blurring, subjects were forced to fix their gaze during the entire session. Iron braces were also utilized to keep the neck and trunks of subjects from moving.


According to photographer Dennis Stacey,


Sometimes all three brace methods were used, and in the case of young children, a sash was employed to tie them to the fixture where they sat to assist in holding them motionless.


In his book The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present, Beaumont Newhall recounts many anecdotes about the hardships caused by long exposure times. American inventor Samuel Morse, who was sent an early prototype by Daguerre (the French artist who pioneered photography), sat his wife and daughter down "from ten to twenty minutes" for each photograph. Newhall also describes the travails of an anonymous "victim," who suffered through an excruciating single shot:


…he sat for eight minutes, with the strong sunlight shining on his face and tears trickling down his cheeks while the operator promenaded the room with watch in hand, calling out the time every five seconds, till the fountains of his eyes were dry.


We were satisfied with this technological explanation for unsmiling subjects until we heard from some dissenters. Perhaps the most vehement is Grant Romer, director of education at the George Eastman House's International Museum of Photography. Romer told us that the details of the daguerreotype process were announced to the public on August 19, 1839, and that only immediately after this announcement were exposures this long. By 1845, exposure time was down to six seconds. Yes, Romer admits, often photographers did utilize longer exposure times, but the technology was already in place to dramatically shorten the statuelike posing of subjects.


So could we find alternative explanations for the moroseness of early photographic subjects? We sure could. Here are some of the more plausible theories:


1.     Photographs were once serious business. Joe Struble, assistant archivist at the George Eastman House, told us that the opportunity to have a photographic portrait was thought of as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it isn't as if the Victorian era was one where goofiness was prized. Roy Mcjunkin, curator of the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Berkeley, feels that the serious expressions embody a "Victorian notion of dignity-a cultural inclination to be seen as a serious, hardworking individual." Photographer John Cahill told us that even in the 1990s, it is not unusual for a European or Middle Eastern subject to thank him for taking even a casual snapshot.

2.     Early subjects were imitating the subjects of portrait painters. Daguerre was himself a painter, and early photographers saw themselves as fine artists. Jim Schreier, a military historian, notes that subjects in this era did not smile in paintings. John Hunisak, professor of art history at Middlebury College, who concurs with Schreier, adds that early photographs of landscapes also tried to mimic still-life paintings.

3.     "Technology and social history are intimately interwoven." This comment, by Roy McJunkin, indicates his strong feeling that George Eastman's invention of roll film, and the candid camera (which could be carried under a shirt or in a purse), both before the end of the nineteenth century, eventually forced the dour expressions of early photographic subjects to turn into smiles. The conventions of the early portrait pictures were changed forever once families owned their own cameras. In the 1850s, according to McJunkin, the average person might have sat for a photographic portrait a few times in his or her life. With roll film, it became possible for someone oblivious to the techniques of photography to shoot pictures in informal settings and without great expense.

4.     Early photographs were consciously intended for posterity. When asked why people didn't smile in old photographs, Grant Romer responded, "Because they didn't want to." Romer was not being facetious. Photographic sessions were "serious business" not only because of their rarity and expense but because the photographs were meant to create documents to record oneself for posterity. Rather, he emphasizes that until the invention of the candid camera, photographers might have asked subjects to assume a pleasant expression, but the baring of teeth or grinning was not considered the proper way to record one's countenance for future generations.

5.     Who wants to bare bad teeth? Romer does not discount the poor dental condition of the citizenry as a solid reason to keep the mouth closed. As Tampa, Florida, photographer Kevin Newsome put it: Baking soda was the toothpaste of the elite. Just imagine what the middle class used, if anything at all.

6.     Historical and psychological explanations. As compelling as all of these theories are, we still feel there are psychological, historical, and sociological implications to the expressions of the subjects in old photographs. In "The Photography of History," a fascinating article in After Image, Michael Lesy discusses the severe economic depression that began in 1836 and lasted six years. Photography was brought to the United States in the thick of it. Lesy observes that early American photographers were not seen as craftsmen or artists but as mesmerists and phrenologists (belief in both was rampant):


The daguerreotypists were called "professor" and were believed to practice a character magic that trapped light and used the dark to reveal the truth of a soul that shone through a face. These men may have been opportunists, but they moved through a population that lived in the midst of a commercial, political, and spiritual crisis that lasted a generation that ended with carnage and assassination. The craft they practiced and the pictures they made were the result not only of the conventional rationalism of an applied technology, but of irrational needs that must be understood psychologically.


In other words, this was not a period when photographers enticed subjects to yell "cheese," or put a devil sign over the heads of other subjects.


By the time George Eastman introduced the roll camera, Victorian morality was waning. People who bought hand cameras, for the most part, were not the generation that suffered through the privations of the Civil War. At the turn of the century, there was a new middle class, eager to buy "cutting edge" technology.


As a benchmark, Roy Mcjunkin asks us to look at photographs of Queen Victoria and President McKinley and compare them with the visage of Teddy Roosevelt, a deft politician who consciously smiled for the camera: "He was the first media president-he understood what a photo opportunity was and took advantage of it." The politics of joy was born, and with it a new conviction that even the average working stiff had a right not specified in the Constitution-not only to the pursuit of happiness but to happiness itself.


We have one confession to make. Our research has indicated that smiles in old photographs, while uncommon, did exist. Dennis Stacey told us that more than a few existing Victorian photographs show the sitter "grinning or smiling, usually with the mouth closed." Grant Romer has an 1854 daguerreotype at the Eastman House of a woman standing on her head in a chair, smiling.


Romer admits that she was clearly defying the conventions of the period. But then, a little smile made Mona Lisa daring in her day, too.



Why Did Men Thrust Their Right Hand into Their Jackets in Old Photographs?


Most of the photo historians we contacted discounted what we considered to be the most likely answer: These subjects were merely imitating Napoleon and what came to be known as the Napoleonic pose. Maggie Kannan, of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other experts we contacted felt that many of the reasons mentioned in the Imponderable above were more likely.


Just as subjects couldn't easily maintain a sincere smile during long exposure times, so was trying to keep their hands still a challenge. Frank Calandra wrote us:


The hand was placed in the jacket or a pocket or resting on a fixed object so that the subject wouldn't move it [or his other hand] and cause a blurred image. Try holding your hands at your sides motionless for fifteen minutes or so-it's not easy.


Grant Romer adds that this gesture not only solved the problem of blurring and what to do with the subject's hands while striking a pose but forced the subject to hold his body in a more elegant manner.


Still, if these technical concerns were the only problem, why not thrust both hands into the jacket? Or pose the hands in front of the subject, with fingers intertwined? John Husinak assured us that this particular piece of body language was part of a trend that was bigger and more wide-ranging than simply an imitation of Napoleon.


Early portrait photographers understood the significance of particular gestures to the point where they were codified in many journals and manuals about photography. Some specific examples are cited in an article by William E. Parker in After Image, an analysis of the work of early photographer Everett A. Scholfield. Parker cites some specific examples: Two men shaking hands or touching each other's shoulders "connoted familial relationship or particular comradeship"; if a subject's head was tilted up with the eyes open or down with eyes closed, the photographer meant "to suggest speculative or contemplative moods."


Harry Amdur, of the American Photographic Historical Society, told us that early photographers tried to be "painterly" because they wanted to gain respect as fine artists. Any survey of the portrait paintings of the early and mid-nineteenth century indicates that the "hand-in-jacket" pose was a common one for many prominent men besides Napoleon.


Another boon to the Napoleonic pose was the invention of the carte de visite, a photographic calling card. Developed in France in the 1850s, small portraits were mounted on a card about the size of today's business card. Royalty and many affluent commoners had their visages immortalized on cartes. In France, prominent figures actually sold their cartes-ordinary citizens collected what became the baseball cards of their era. Cartes de visite invaded the United States within years.


These photos were far from candid shots. Indeed, Roy McJunkin told Imponderables that carte de visite studios in the United States used theatrical sets, and that subjects invariably dressed in their Sunday best. The hand-in-jacket pose was only one of many staged poses, including holding a letter or bible, holding a gun as if the subject were shooting, or pointing to an unseen (and usually nonexistent) point or object.


Some of the pretensions of this period were downright silly-silly enough to inspire Lewis Carroll to write a parody of the whole enterprise. In Carroll's poem, actually a parody of Longfellow's Hiawatha, Hiawatha is transformed into a harried, frustrated portrait photographer:


From his shoulder Hiawatha

Took the camera of rosewood,

Made of sliding, folding rosewood;

Neatly put it all together,

In its case it lay compactly,

Folded into nearly nothing;

But he opened out the hinges,

Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,

Till it looked all squares and oblongs,

Like a complicated figure

In the second book of Euclid,

This he perched upon a tri-pod

Crouched beneath its dusty cover

Stretched his hand enforcing silence

Mystic, awful was the process,

All the family in order

Sat before him for their pictures:

Each in turn, as he was taken,

Volunteered his own suggestions.

First the governor, the father:

He suggested velvet curtains

Looped about a messy Pillar;

And the comer of a table.

He would hold a scroll of something

Hold it firmly in his left hand;

He would keep his right hand buried

(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;

He would contemplate the distance

With a look of pensive meaning,

As of ducks that die in tempests.

Grand, heroic was the notion:

Yet, the picture failed entirely:

Failed, because he moved a little,

Moved because he couldn't help it!


Who would have ever thought of Lewis Carroll summarizing the answers to an Imponderable, while simultaneously contemplating the plight of a Sears portrait photographer?