There are any number of reasons why portrait and documentary photography are so fascinating. They’re as diverse as their subjects, bringing people, communities, areas and, sometimes, entire eras to life.
Take these photographs of Victorian England, for example. Not necessarily too remarkable – except for the fact that the subjects are actually smiling.
Given that smiling for cameras comes as second nature to so many people nowadays, why didn’t the Victorians do so? And why is it so striking that these people did?
It isn’t just a question of attitudes. According to this BBC article, the change comes down to a number of factors. The first thing to note is that exposure times in the 1800s were agonisingly long. It would have been extremely difficult to maintain any sort of smile for a photograph for as long as was necessary in those days. Exposures during the twentieth century came down to hundredths or thousandths of a second – but in the nineteenth century, they took hours. Most of us struggle to hold a smile for more than five seconds. Even when technology improved as the nineteenth century progressed, exposure times were still measured in minutes rather than seconds. This is the main reason for those serious portraits. Besides – could you smile convincingly with your head in a metal clamp to keet it still, or with drugs to keep you subdued?
With this in mind, it’s almost astonishing to discover that there are, in fact, photographs of Victorians smiling. It’s partially a technological change, but there is also a wider cultural acknowledgement that people began to move on from the stern, ‘repressed’ attitudes of the nineteenth century, in which men were expected to look authoritative and women were often expected to look thoughtful. The people in these images truly were setting a new trend. And a lasting one, too.