How old is the photographed smile?
August 27, 2005 9:52 AM   Subscribe

When did people start smiling for photographs? What is the oldest extant photograph of someone smiling (whether for the camera or incidentally)?
posted by pracowity to Media & Arts (17 answers total)
A good place to find clues would be a Google Images search of daguerrotypes. I'm just guessing but I'd imagine that people didn't smile in the older pictures because the exposures were so long and one probably wants to keep the mouth muscles relaxed. Maybe as film speeds came down in the latter 19th century, people might have done it more as it become more accepted for photos. Again just a guess.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:56 AM on August 27, 2005

milan kundera (yah cheesy i know) has written about this in one of fiction books, either laughter and forgetting or immortality... he basically goes on one of his patented intellectual romps through the ages and discusses the idea that now we have smiling figureheads, people in pictures, etc, whereas to imagine a statue of, say, stalin, smiling would be the ultimate insult to said leader. same for history, statues were never of people smiling, only looking stoically. he doesn't really conclude this interesting tangent, just making points about the artificiality of society post WWII and our desire to be happy in the face of encroaching modernity.

or something like that.
posted by yonation at 10:09 AM on August 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

yonathon: it would be interesting to look at the representation of public figures in art versus the that of the lower classes. I'm thinking 19th century stuff like The Jolly Washerwoman or minstrel shows versus the portraits of Presidents, etc. (Random aside: there's a portrait of some alum and his wife hanging in one of the buildings at my school, and he has the same shit-eating grin that the Jolly Washerwoman has.)

I think that photography comes out of that sort of history, as well, and I'd bet that the first smiling photos started around the time that Kodak released their first cheap camera... 1905, maybe? Before that there weren't really any "snapshot" type photographs. With daguerreotypes, sitting for one would be expensive enough that it would be maybe the only picture you'd have of yourself. And in the early ones, they're not smiling because their head is in a brace--it was a minutes long exposure.
posted by strikhedonia at 10:25 AM on August 27, 2005

It looks like there's an article at Le Monde Diplomatique that talks about exactly this, but it costs money.
posted by cmonkey at 10:25 AM on August 27, 2005

I just saw strikhedonia's reply and saw that I mispelled daguerreotype... revised Google Image search has more hits.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:45 AM on August 27, 2005

A google cache of the article cmonkey posted can be found here.
posted by defenestration at 10:45 AM on August 27, 2005

Err, I forgot to note that the google cache contains the entire article.
posted by defenestration at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2005

Searching "daguerreotype + smiling" brings up this image and this page. No dates, though.
posted by strikhedonia at 10:52 AM on August 27, 2005

Isn't smiling for pictures a cultural thing? Anyway, see this article from the Guardian about the first photographed smile.

On preview, someone seems to have already found this information, but just to back it up: As a possible set of markers for when it became expected, I have a picture of my grandparents as a young couple from the late 40s. They aren't smiling, just looking at the camera. Same for earlier pictures of them as kids. But (candid) pictures from 1954 show my other grandfather smiling while he shows off his baby son, although in the same pictures my grandmother doesn't smile. Pictures of my father from school in the early 60s have him smiling; pictures of his much older brothers in the late 30s and early 40s show them just looking at the camera. So I'm guessing after 1960 or so.
posted by dilettante at 10:53 AM on August 27, 2005

Hmm, in the early days of Britpop many a new hero didn't smile on publicity pictures because their teeth were too bad. Standards of dental care have something to do with this as well. It's not that bad to have crooked teeth when most other people have them as well, but this changes when orthodontic procedures become normally accepted.
posted by ijsbrand at 11:43 AM on August 27, 2005

In history museums, we tend to interpret facial expressions in early photographs this way: photography, at first, was an occasional and costly process. It took place most often in a studio, and by a professional photographer. Even the pics that begin appearing in the late 1890s, of people at seashores and club meetings and so on, are professionally taken. The experience was a serious one -- recording a moment for posterity, much like sitting for a portrait. Also, it's very true that exposure times were quite a bit longer, due to slower film and more use of natural light. Try an experiment: make a big ol' toothy grin and then try to hold it, motionless, for a minute thirty seconds. It's excruciating after a while. So photographers instructed people to compose themselves and have a comfortable, flat expression.

When cameras left professional and hobbyist hands and became available to the average Joe, the 'snapshot' became more common. THese pictures were candid, more casual, and less composed. The influence of formal portrait photography remiained strong (as it still is today), resulting in those poker-faced depictions of the grandparents in front of the house or car, straring straight on into the camera. The impression is one of dignity, pride, and sometimes, perhaps, even a sense that a straight face is sexier. Our grandparents had grown up with this. It wasn't until cheap box cameras arrived in the late 40s, early 50s that we saw regular people taking smiling, more candid photos.

That being said, it is funny that we pose with smiles on. There's really no reason why we should consider a pasted-on smile more 'natural' than a straight face. It's not.
posted by Miko at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2005

That's a great article, cmonkey, and many thanks to defenestration for the Google cache. Since both will probably vanish from the internet before too long, I'll quote the most important bit:
Evidence from art historian Angus Trumble leads the smile-hunter to the first specimens on proto-pin-ups called cartes-de-visite, invented in France in the 1850s, which traded in and on the charms of female performers, actresses and other demi-mondaines. As their models were selling sex more or less directly, they ignored, indeed played on, the era’s belief that an open mouth, especially a female one revealing teeth, was vulgar and obscene; their smiles were meant as come-ons.

Professional beauties - high society lookers who posed on classier cards from the 1870s for renown not money - kept their mouths shut, as did real people; scan the 3,000 plus mug-shots in Roger Vaughn’s collection from long-exposure portraits of the 1850s to snaps of the 1930s, and a camera smile is rarely visible before the 1920s.

What introduced and popularised it was the movies. A canine-baring smile isn’t that frequent in life; how many people over the age of seven have you seen smile today? Adults may exhibit a version of it as a sign of welcome, or a marker of embarrassment and humility, but otherwise it’s a spontaneous response to a pleasurable stimulus (an "instantaneous chemical reaction in the brain," Trumble explains). While a smile lasts, it naturally animates and illumines a face; film directors, who quickly made enormous faces into the landscape of early cinema, encouraged enactment of a smile. Smiles touched audiences directly; they were defenceless against teeth. Movie laughter looked like a spasm before the arrival of sound (when Doug Fairbanks cracks his sides with silent haw-haws in The Thief of Baghdad, he’s risible himself), but a smile was the perfect emotion for a close-up; eyes and teeth "took" the light best that way, reflecting the latest electric arcs; they made a reciprocity of radiance.[...]

Movie stars transposed their onscreen faces to still publicity photographs too, which were commonly reproduced from about 1912 on in the novel picture newspapers and magazines. It’s rewarding to compare these with contemporary portraits of leading theatre performers. There are far more smiles among kinematograph folk: they aggregate to a reiterated statement that the good life was no longer calm, dignified and unworried as expressed in portraits before and after the invention of the photograph, but happy - happy literally meaning "to show the joy of good luck" . The enviable life was now an animated state of grace conveyed in a continual smile. Advertisers soon abridged this proposition, so that purchase of a product promised to release immediately the to-be-envied smile of the girls in the ads. (In a quick count of smiles, editorial and advertising, in publications on my desk, there are still three times as many girning women as men. And men now regard a smile as a female expression they can demand or cajole - "Give us a smile, then, love".)
The article goes on to say that good dentistry helped too, and picks 1920 as the date after which smiling became common.
posted by languagehat at 1:05 PM on August 27, 2005

also, old photographic porn had smiles before portrait photos did...i'm thinking that was the earliest.
posted by amberglow at 3:00 PM on August 27, 2005

Believe it or not, this has been asked before.
posted by iconomy at 7:05 PM on August 27, 2005

Just to add to the information, I've got pictures of my grandfather in the early 40's smiling. I actually have a very old photograph, around 1900 or so of some ancestors of mine. There's five people sitting on a wagon, while four of them had straight faces, there was course, one kid standing by himself with a smile on his face.
posted by Atreides at 7:55 PM on August 27, 2005

Fwiw it's possibly a cultural thing too. I know a lot of older Chinese people who don't smile in pictures. One reason I've heard is that they think of having their picture taken as a "formal" (read "serious") event.
posted by edjusted at 11:22 PM on August 27, 2005

this has been asked before.

I'll be damned. But it sure got better answers this time. Just goes to show, a double post is sometimes a good idea.
posted by languagehat at 5:48 AM on August 28, 2005

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