In the earlier days of photography, it took some time to take a photo, and so our ancestors had to stay still for a matter of minutes in order to have their likeness captured. The early daguerreotype could have an exposure time of up to 15 minutes – imagine trying to smile for several minutes, and you can imagine the rictus expression that would result. Therefore, our ancestors tended to stay straight-faced, and when we look at their serious expressions, we assume that that was their normal look.
Some other photographs show the problems that resulted from not being able to stay still – blurred faces, or even bodies, particularly when young children were unable to stay in one place without fidgeting or getting fed up. However, as cameras became more portable, more informal shots could be taken, thus increasing the chances of individuals having a more relaxed, happy expression.
However, some have posited that there were other reasons why there are relatively few photographs of individuals smiling in Victorian times – such as there being a legacy from prephotographic times, when people had to sit to have their likeness drawn or painted. It was a serious matter, designed to show what they looked like, not them doing something at that time. The ultimate example of this lies in post-mortem photography, a means of Victorians recorded what their deceased loved one looked like. Of course, some people continued to prefer to be photographed looking serious, even as others became more comfortable about the idea of relaxing. Author Mark Twain (the nom-de-plume of Samuel Langhorn Clemens) was once asked why he was always so gloomy in his pictures, and answered, “I think 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.”