Portrait photos from over a century ago rarely show subjects smiling, but this 19th century photo is an exception, and it’s been going viral online for that reason.
The photo is found in the National Anthropological Archives maintained by the Smithsonian Institution. The 14.5×6.5-inch photo was captured in 1894, and it shows a Native American girl named O-o-dee of the Kiowa people in the Oklahoma Territory.
It’s believed that the photo was captured by a photographer named George W. Bretz who ran a photo studio in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. An album of Bretz’s photos, which includes this smiling portrait, was sold at auction in 2019 for $43,750.
As the photo is making the rounds on the Web, people have been commenting on how “modern” and “relatable” the smiling makes the picture look.
“Wow, she could totally be an average high school girl dressed up in traditional clothes,” one commenter writes. “Amazing what a smile can do to modernize a picture.”
“A smile brings a whole new level of humanity to old photos,” one writes.
“It’s crazy how much more relatable that makes this picture,” writes another. “If I saw it without context I would have thought it was someone from today who photoshopped it.”
There are different theories and explanations for why subjects rarely smiled in photos prior to the 20th century. In addition to technical limitations — people often had to sit absolutely still for several minutes while photos were being exposed — there were also issues of poor oral hygiene and cultural norms that caused people to wear serious expressions on their faces.
P.S. Here are some of the earliest known photos of people smiling in photos.