Were Old People So Gloomy that They Didn’t Smile in Photos?

Photo of a happy family

In an age where flashing one’s pearly whites for a selfie is normal, it’s hard to understand why people photographed in the early days of the camera looked so gloomy. In fact, everybody exuded a serious mien — even Charles Darwin and Mark Twain, who were reputedly warm and playful people.

Things were not as they seemed, though. The reason behind this supposed sorrow in photographs lies in the limits imposed by the budding technology — and for Victorians, it was a very serious matter, indeed.

An Extended Exposure Time

The daguerreotype, which was the predecessor of the modern camera, was a marvel of its time. But it wasn’t exactly the fastest processing machine. Invented in 1839, it had a long exposure time — sometimes, it would last up to 15 minutes. That was a long time to hold a smile, and people didn’t even have a cosmetic dentist in Meridian to get their teeth done back then!

Fortunately, as the technology for photography improved, the exposure time was reduced, and people didn’t have to hold a face for long.

Not Going to Throw Away Their One Shot

Being photographed back then was the exception rather than the norm. The expense required to get a photo taken and developed was prohibitive, so it was almost guaranteed that it only happened once in a lifetime. Because of this, the sole purpose of a photograph was to capture an idealized image of the person.

People held this mentality even before the cameras were invented and paintings were commissioned to represent the ideal version of the subject. As photographs became common, however, the purpose of capturing one’s image evolved. It was no longer used to record a person at their best; rather, it captured the casual moments of one’s life where smiling to celebrate the happy moment became a mainstay.

Early-photography era Victorians weren’t necessarily a gloomy bunch — they probably found plenty of things to smile about. However, the mechanisms of early cameras and the rarity of photographs were no laughing matter.