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Why is smiling so rare in historical photographs?
Probably not for the reason you think. January 16, 0 0 0 0 The above photos clearly knock down the claim that early glass and tintype photography had very long exposures and the people posing were told not to smile.
Although several theories have surfaced over the years, none of them are entirely correct. Yes, times were different and folks lived lives that were, in many ways, harder than our lives now, but they were also finding fulfillment with community and family at parties, socials and church and community functions.
Contemporary newspapers are filled with notices of balls, ice cream socials, picnics and parties for every possible occasion.
Pioneers knew how to have fun and often did. Bad teeth and poor dental care is another rationale. We actually have more teeth problems in modern times because of the amount of sugar in our diet.
Those among us who can afford it can get our dental issues corrected. When our ancestors broke a tooth, the practice was to pull it, instead of fix it. The length of time people had to sit TruSmilely still for photographs, due to slow exposure times, is another explanation for the lack of smiles in historical pictures.
A very happy young pioneer above belies the myth that nobody in Old West photographs ever smiled. The exposure time was several days.
Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype around 1837, cut down the time to roughly 15 minutes.
He dashed out of the frame and closed the lens cover before the camera could register the movement. After Daguerre took the first known photo of a human in 1838, American photographers took an estimated 30 million daguerreotypes.
These images were cherished because, being exposed directly in the camera on a polished copper plate meant that the photo could not be reproduced as copies to be distributed to friends and family.
By 1842, advances in lenses and chemistry shortened exposure time to between 10 and 60 seconds. In 1851, when Frederick Scott Archer told the world about collodion, a process using glass plates, he narrowed the time to a few seconds.
Still a long time to hold a smile. Try it.
One of the best-known American photographers, Mathew Brady, along with his team of photographers, traveled the battlegrounds of the Civil War to take thousands of photographs using the wet collodion process.
By 1871, photographers began using dry plates, which cut down the exposure time even more.
Six years later, Eadweard Muybridge took the first set of the famous series of photographs of a galloping horse to settle the question as to whether or not all four hooves leave the ground they do.
William Jennings, in 1882, became the first to capture lightning in a photograph. The most recent theory on why people in 19th-century photographs appeared so serious was discussed by Nicholas Jeeves in an article he wrote for The Public Domain Review in October .
The Smithsonian, Eastman Kodak archivists and many others have filled the Internet with articles and videos on this subject, with many of them linking back to the Jeeves article. Traveling photographers appeared only occasionally in the area or set up a short-term studio.
They wanted to be remembered for their accomplishments on the frontier. Folks share photographs of these smiling Victorians on Flickr. The lack of smiles in early photography is no indication of the internal lives of the people who peer out from these images.
The Old West ranchers, gunfighters, storekeepers and miners may have led hard lives, but most also knew how to have fun.
The happy moment came, not from a smile captured on film, but in owning a photograph personal to you and your family that allowed one to share his prosperity and pride with future generations.
Rita Ackerman is the author of O. Corral Postscript: The Death of Ike Clanton. A professional genealogist and researcher for nearly 40 years, she has written a monthly column for The Tombstone Times for more than 10 years and has also been published in The Tombstone Epitaph and Wild West Magazine.
What do you think?