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Why didn’t people smile in old photos?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s NOT because old folks from the 19th century were hiding ugly teeth. Nor is it because they lacked sense of humor.



Initially, people took photos using an early photographic process called daguerreotype. It’s long exposure time (reaching up to 15 minutes or so) made it impossible for someone to even hold a smile.

Although they’re a bit cheaper than paintings, photos were still a rarity during those days. Portrait photography was considered a formal occasion, an opportunity to capture the person’s “ideal,” and something that could only happen once in a lifetime. It was an event so serious that they didn’t want a smile to ruin it all.

This explanation was perfectly summed up by Mark Twain (1835-1910) in his letter to the Sacramento Daily Union:

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

Share the knowledge! #FilipiKnow #NowYouKnow #Photography #History


Jeeves, N. The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture. The Public Domain Review. Retrieved 21 May 2016, from

Meyer, R. (2013). Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Portraits?. The Atlantic. Retrieved 21 May 2016, from

Smithsonian Magazine,. Ask Smithsonian: Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photographs?. Retrieved from

Article: FilipiKnow

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