Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Photos?


Ever wonder why people in old paintings and photographs generally don’t have smiles on their faces? We explored this subject a little back in November 2012, and found that reasons may have included technical limitations, oral hygiene, and the seriousness of formal occasions.

Over at the Public Domain Review, Nicholas Jeeves has written up an in-depth piece on this subject that comes to some different conclusions.

Do a search for vintage portraits online, and you'll see that generally people looked serious (and sometimes pissed).

Do a search for vintage portraits online, and you’ll see that generally people looked serious (and sometimes pissed).

First off, Jeeves dismisses the notion that people of old refused to smile because their teeth were rotting. It wasn’t that people didn’t have bad teeth, as dental hygiene really was awful, but rather that bad teeth were so common that seeing them did not take away from a person’s attractiveness at the time.

So what were some of the real reasons people didn’t smile? Jeeves writes that in addition to the simple fact that nice-looking smiles are difficult to create and capture, one of the main reasons was how smiles were perceived centuries ago.

Although nowadays we think of smiles as being indicative of happiness, humor, and warmth, they apparently had a very different meaning back in the day:

By the 17th century in Europe it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment

Want to be seen as upper class and as a person of good character? Don’t smile.

For this reason, both the creators and the sitters of portraits had good reason to keep the smiles out of the resulting images, which explains why we don’t see photos of famous figures donning a grin in their official portraits.

Abraham Lincoln, although known for his humorous personality during his time, is now remembered more by the extremely serious expressions he chose to wear during official portrait sessions:


Another man Jeeves cites is author and humorist Mark Twain. He was quite a funny guy as well, but Twain hardly let any of that show in his portrait photographs:


In a letter to the Sacramento Daily Union, Twain wrote, “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.”

The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture [PDR via Neatorama]

  • Tom Waugh

    I was always under the impression that it was due to the long exposure times needed. The subject couldn’t hold a smile for that long.

  • pixeljammer

    Yeah. ‘Cause that’s the actual reason.

  • Eugene Chok

    exactly what i thought, holding a smile for that long ouch, and would look so so un-natural

  • 3ric15

    I thought it was because it was too hard to hold a smile for the long exposure, and to avoid blurring, so they just avoided smiling all together.

  • Guest

    Exactly. the idea was to take the photograph with the face in as relaxed a pose as possible. The sitter didn’t frown or grimace either, as a rule.

  • sbb

    It is actually because Kodak came up with marketing idea of getting people to smile.
    Is something discussed in BBC doco and book on history of photography
    Before that it just wasn’t thought of. It wasn’t that ppl were grumpy or any technical reason.

    Is only after Kodak used it in marketing that it started happening and now we consider it standard to require a forced happiness in a photo. To me, thinking about it, forcing a smile, or expecting to see one in photos is kinda odd when you think about it.

  • Anon

    Smiling wasn’t for the upper classes? That seems unlikely.

  • jeff

    Well, would you smile in a colorless world?

  • Mescalamba

    Abraham Lincoln seems to manage rather pleasant facial expression even for long time needed for that exposure (about half a minute at least I think?). At that third pic of his is really visible that he liked to smile..

    I think USA could use someone like him today. But, thats off-topic..

  • Burnin Biomass

    I thought it had something to do with not enough fiber in their diet.

  • Rhana

    Tom Waugh et al are correct. I loved this piece because it’s such a great example of “over thinking”. A high school friend of mine wrote a great story about a painter who had painted a picture of a New England church. While he was away his 3 year old painted a red slash across the church. Years later critics were tying themselves in knots “interpreting” it as an anti religious statement by the painter.

  • Brett


  • Fernando Callo

    This photo is from 1900’s not 1800’s

  • Brett

    It was a joke.

  • Fernando Callo

    Yeah, I know. Just to prevent people asking “And how this picture was taken?”

  • sam

    I thought of same thing too. Long exposure time

  • Andrew

    I always thought it was because back in the 19th Century having you’re picture taken are a very special occasion, not to mention very expensive, and people didn’t smile because at the time it was more than likely the only picture they’re ever have of themselves.

  • Coop

    I believe even before that that smiling in a photo for posterity wasn’t necessary. It kind of feels unnatural to me, to force a smile for a photo, and if I’m in a bout of particular depression or something I feel like I just can’t take a “selfie” because the only socially acceptable photos on social networks are ones where people smile. Why smile just for a camera? What about getting your picture taken is making you happy?

  • Dover
  • Geoffrey Lee

    Here’s something else to consider… how often do you see models smile for their photo shoots?

  • Graf Almassy

    I have a friend who still using historical photography processes. He told me that the subjects couldn’t hold their smiles for 1-2 minutes (because long exposure times needed). This is the actual reason.

    Once I tried hold my smile for 30 seconds (!), but my face was blurred on the photo.

  • Jake

    I lived in Mali, in West Africa, for a couple years and over there, it’s considered improper and almost “dirty” to smile in photos. I have pictures of the happiest people in the world and kids playing with each other and yet they’re smiling in almost none of my shots. Also makes it easy for those charity groups to get pictures of sad kids.

  • worker88

    There were “strobists” long before the blog.

  • Darrell Goodwin

    Yeah, old pics are kind of funny for this reason… It always makes me laugh a bit to see how serious (and kind of angry) they all look prior to a certain year.

  • Bill Binns

    I think it’s more odd that we insist on forcing people to smile in modern photography than the lack of smiles in historical imaging (photogrpahy and painting). I will personally never smile on cue for a photograph. If someone catches a candid shot of me with an actual smile on my face, fine but I’m not faking it. Same deal when I’m the shooter, I never ask for any particular facial expression.

  • Bill Binns

    This would make a good subject for a Petapixel article. What the hell is up with the duckface thing?? Where did this come from? I suspect New Jersey.

  • Joe Blow

    Why do photo and catwalk models – today – have such surly, morose, and arrogant expressions on their faces? Very off-putting and unattractive.

  • Joe Blow

    Why do photo and catwalk models – today – have such surly, morose, and arrogant expressions on their faces? It’s very off-putting and unattractive.

  • Arvind Chenji

    Not just the long exposure times, but also the fact that most of them had to have neck braces to sit still for such a period of time would have added to the seriousness of the picture. If anyone pinned my neck with a brace and made me sit or stand for a few minutes till he got his focus right etc., I wouldnt be smiling either

  • Lzo

    Mmmh. Also wondering if the necessary long exposure time could also be a reason for non-smiling on the pictures : it’s more difficult to keep smiling than not smiling…

  • Lzo

    gosh. Just saw someone already said this… sorry.

  • R O

    Heard this as well. While not being able to hold a smile for the long exposure times was a technical reason, I just don’t think it occurred to people to smile for portraits, which is completely logical. The forced, smiley expression of our day is a much more curious phenomenon than simply holding a neutral face.

  • dannybuoy

    Photos in those days were mainly for documentation and not much else.

  • Kibik

    As a professional who has studied photography and its history all my life I can tell you flatly that the first persons to comment have it exactly right. Exposure times were long because photo emulsion sensitivities were very low. Smiling requires the use of many of facial muscles and people couldn’t hold one that long. It did, therefore, become the convention that smiling wasn’t necessary or desired. And dignitaries, especially, wouldn’t want to smile lest they be taken as not being serious. Photo studios also had special chairs with head braces to keep the head from moving. Sometimes those head braces had crown carvings on top in case the brace was seen to make it decorative. Edison’s first film studio had a removable roof to let sunlight in to get as much light as possible, because of low film sensitivity.
    Early photographers usually made their own emulsions and spread it on glass or tin.

  • Eugene Chok

    after bush you had someone even worse, obama, the world could use a lincoln right now… or a kennedy

  • Kodachrome64

    That’s true. I bet people back then felt the same way about photographs as we do today about getting an x-ray done. It’s just a type of visual documentation. Smiling probably didn’t even occur to them.

  • Reecy

    Because their, smiziung…. Smiling with their eyes… a Tera Banks term.

  • Reecy

    Tira… silly spell check

  • George

    Lincoln looks like a funny guy there, he’s just not pulling the standard grimace required today. He also looks uncannily like one Daniel Day Lewis – and I didn’t even see the movie.

  • MrProsser

    I’ve seen a number of articles about this topic recently and none of them have mentioned this. I am not sure why, to me it seems like the obvious first choice for an explanation.

  • Oj0

    I heard that because of the price of photography back then, photos were mainly taken after people had passed away. The photo would be the only way that loved ones would have a reminder of the deceased.

  • Anders Frost

    How many pre-photo paintings contained people who smiled? I can’t remember any – except for Mona Lisa, which you can’t exactly say is a smile – so there were before photographies already a convention, that you shouldn’t smile on a portrait. But to sum it up – I don’t think there is only one short answer.

  • Zeke

    What is it about an unnatural grimace forced on one’s face at any given time a photo is taken, that makes it preferable to looking the way one normally does at all other times? The need to appear fake before others? It is smiles in photos that are unnatural and abnormal. Not the other way around. The world isn’t all Happy Scrappy Hero Pups.

  • Ex

    Not sure when it’s from, but I’ve always loved this picture for breaking out of the norm.

  • Rob

    It’s not about you. You are smiling at the viewer. Smiling in a photo makes other people feel happy, just as smiling at someone makes them feel that you are happy to see them. Try thinking of the person who will see your photo if you want to smile without it feeling forced.

  • Coop

    The photographer is smiling at the subject? I don’t agree. When cameras were invented I’m sure they were just made to capture photographs and that’s it. Doubt there were Kodak moments and ad campaigns lol. There is no reason to smile at a camera.

  • Coop


  • Rufus T. Firefly

    Some photos were taken postumous — not much to smile about when you’re decomposing.

  • spikedude55

    because back in the olden days since taking pictures was rarer, it was seen as more formal so people didnt smile and I guess smiling was informal back then.

    Now taking pictures is common and used in a non-formal setting more often so people smile more.

    just my theory

  • spikedude55

    because back in the olden days pictures were used in a formal setting since pictures were rare at the time. So people didnt smile because smiling is seen as informal.

    Now taking pictures is common and used in a non-formal setting more often so people smile more.

    just my theory