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Smile for the Camera


Ambrotype of unidentified African-American man with a boxing pose

unknown photographer, ca. 1860

While researching the Everett Sisters, it occurred to me that I had never seen a person smiling in an early photograph before. I decided to try to find out how rare this phenomena actually was and came across a couple of interesting articles on the history of facial expressions in portraiture. The first article, The Earliest Known Photographs of People Smiling, dealt specifically with photographs and listed a number of potential reasons why smiling in portraits was unfashionable.

  • Bad dental hygiene

  • Long exposure times

  • Cultural norms of the times

  • Issues of decorum and etiquette

Thomas DeWitt, photograph by Mathew Brady, ca.1850-1860

Thomas DeWitt, Daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, ca. 1850-1860

The other essay, The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture, focuses mostly on paintings. The author theorizes that because of the high level of skill it takes to accurately depict open mouth smiles, painters rarely portrayed them. Instead, portrait artists encouraged sitters who held powerful or academic positions to adopt a serious expression. Sitters who did not feel the pressure of having to convey a certain image were often depicted with a smirk. Smirks, according to the author, are expressions that can convey a range of complex emotions.

Unidentified woman with smirk, photograph by Mathew Brady, ca.1844-1860

Unidentified woman with smirk, Daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, ca.1844-1860

Because poor dental hygiene was widespread during this time, the author also contends that bad teeth were probably not a source of embarrassment. He does agree that cultural norms and etiquette are a likely influence by citing several examples. One of the earliest was a 17th Century cultural norm that only people who were poor, of low character or social standing, or simply uncultured, smiled widely and often. My favorite, however, was a quote from Mark Twain that illustrates just how much times and smile culture have changed:

“A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning than to go down to posterity with a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”


Unidentified man (who is quite serious and rocks an awesome side part in his hair)

by unknown photographer, ca. 1849-1860

In the last few years, I've noticed that I smile much less freely than I did when I was younger especially in photos. Do you smile in portraits or pull a serious face? Have you considered why you chose to record that particular expression? Do you find that people of a particular age, culture, or region smile more freely that others? Share your smile and your story on IG with #bdhairstory

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