Why dont people smile in old photographs? (Smithsonian.com)
Why dont people smile in old photographs?
Lexile

You asked us, why don't people smile in old photographs and, well, technology is partly to blame.

The Daguerreotype, the first widely used photographic process, was invented in 1839, and the exposure time in those early days was really long, sometimes lasting up to 15 minutes or so, way too long to hold a smile.

But that timing was cut down pretty quickly, so there was more at play here than just the tech.

Although it was less expensive than having your portrait painted, getting your picture taken still wasn't cheap. Some people had just one photo snapped their whole entire life, which made the event a pretty important and formal deal.

Unlike portrait painters, photographers weren't trying to capture an instant in their subjects' lives, but more of an ideal of that person. Plus, back in the day, the classy just didn't say, cheese."

So, picture equals sourpuss.

It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century when cameras became portable and easier to use, that pictures turned into casual snapshots, and smiles became more common.

Now, we can't get enough of those pearly whites.

For more stories like this, check us out every day at smithsonian.com

Critical thinking challenge: Why are you told to say "cheese" when your picture is taken?

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COMMENTS (75)
  • NallelyR-Kan
    2/10/2015 - 09:29 a.m.

    Why are you told to say cheese when getting your picture taken? Well you're told too because when u say cheese, you smile. Although that's what photographers usually tell you to say when you're little getting your photo taken

  • michaelh-boo
    2/10/2015 - 11:17 a.m.

    people didnt smile back in the 1800s , because it took 15 min to take a picture. As the years went by the time of taking pictures went down.

  • JacobW-Rei
    2/10/2015 - 11:21 a.m.

    Seems odd that no-one smiled back then it seems that everyone smiles now. It seems they don't want to have a nice memory on their wall. The weird thing was the children could smile for hours for a picture. I wonder what teens would do then.

  • michaelh-boo
    2/10/2015 - 11:23 a.m.

    people didn't smile back in the 1800s , because it took 15 min to take a picture. As the years went by the time of taking pictures went down. Now you can take a picture with the snap of a finger . back in the day classy people didint say cheese

  • azaylag-Koc
    2/10/2015 - 12:03 p.m.

    Back then they took 15 minutes to take one photo , imagine how many minutes it would take to take how many we take now. Now we can take 10 in less then 1 second each.

  • hunter.mellinger64
    2/10/2015 - 12:36 p.m.

    I can see why they didn't smile back then. I wouldn't want to smile for fifteen minutes. It was also considered "bad luck" to smile in a photo back then.

  • johanna.galloway34
    2/10/2015 - 01:00 p.m.

    Back in the day, people no one said cheese because when being photographed, you have to sit for 15 minutes. But, now, saying cheese was just to smile. It was less expensive if you got your portrait painted other than taking the picture. You would've have to sit for and hour at least. That's what I think about smiling.

    • BH-Rei
      2/10/2015 - 04:13 p.m.

      I would completely agree. Another thing you should think about though is the size and how much time setting up the cameras took compared to now where we have cameras that fit into a phone.

  • bronemies
    2/10/2015 - 01:15 p.m.

    the technology uis partially to blame and probaly it was unknown or uncommon to smile when taking a picture for them then it is for us now. There have been several mysterious phoptotgraphs of people not smiling: Mona Lisa. Several photos could have also been faded over long periods of time resulting in half smiles and straight faces.

  • GigiSylvester-Ste
    2/10/2015 - 01:21 p.m.

    I have always wondered this! I would never be able to hold a smile for 15 minutes. I complain for holding for like two minutes when people take my picture.

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