Your Family History - - Snapshots - Left Left: The stern coun­te­nance of Mark Twain

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.”

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