Why didn’t people smile in old photos?

Summer Days by Julia Margaret Cameron. Photograph: Stapleton Collection/Corbis

Excerpt from this article:

Why did our ancestors, from unknown sitters for family portraits to the great and famous, become so mirthless in front of the lens? You don’t have to look very long at these unsmiling old photos to see how incomplete the apparently obvious answer is – that they are freezing their faces in order to keep still for the long exposure times…

…People who posed for early photographs, from earnest middle-class families recording their status to celebrities captured by the lens, understood it as a significant moment. Photography was still rare. Having your picture taken was not something that happened every day. For many people it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

… Today, we take so many smiling snaps the idea of anyone finding true depth and poetry in most of them is absurd. Photos are about being social. We want to communicate ourselves as happy social people. So we smile, laugh and cavort in endless and endlessly shared selfies.

A grinning selfie is the opposite of a serious portrait. It’s just a momentary performance of happiness. It has zero profundity and therefore zero artistic value. As a human document it is disturbingly throwaway. (In fact, not even solid enough to throw away – just press delete).

How beautiful and haunting old photographs are in comparison with our silly selfies.

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