By David Creighton, PACE student for Digital Initiatives
Maggie Boyd, like other people of her time, didn’t smile in pictures. There are a few different reasons for the stoic expressions that can be seen in photographs before the 20th century. The first of these involves the technological limitations of photography at the time. The materials used to capture images were much less sensitive than what is available today, and the cameras themselves weren’t as efficient. To get the correct exposure sometimes took as long as 10 minutes, so the subject of a photograph had to stay stationary the entire time to prevent a blurry picture. Holding a consistent smile for this long would make the facial muscles tired and make the subject appear strained or in pain, neither of which are flattering in a photograph. This presented additional problems for people getting portraits of their children, since kids can be restless. Second, there was a lack of good dental care for most people at the advent of photography. This meant that many people were missing teeth or had discoloration in their teeth, something people aren’t eager to show off in the few images that would be taken in their lifetimes.
Finally, having one’s picture taken in those days was a much more formal event. There weren’t any cameras that would fit in the palm of your hand, they all had to be mounted on a tripod, and carefully set up. Each picture that was to be taken was recorded on individual metal or glass plates that had to be coated with a light-sensitive solution immediately before exposing the image. The complexity of the process prevented those beyond professionals and determined amateurs from taking photographs, which made pictures much more special. Often, people only had their picture taken a few times in their lifetimes, compared to the dozens, if not hundreds of pictures taken of most people living currently (Wood). When you only have a few chances to have your image recorded for posterity, who wouldn’t want to look their best? At its beginning, people saw photography as an alternative to sitting for a painted portrait, and tradition held that one was serious for a painting.
All of the formality didn’t prevent Maggie from enjoying the experience of having her picture taken, whether or not she actually looked happy in the photographs. She wrote on May 10, 1873
“After elocution we all go to have our pictures taken. We have a gay time. Do not get home till after twelve.”
Moving into the 1900s, trends in photography were changing, especially with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera. First made available in 1900, this camera made taking pictures incredibly easy, and was affordable so that nearly anyone could now have access to a camera (“The Brownie Camera”). The Brownie was easy to carry around, and had no controls besides the shutter, so this opened the doors for casual photos and snapshots to emerge. Students took advantage of these new possibilities and documented themselves, and soon there were popular places around campus where people frequently took pictures. For instance, this photo shows a group of students sitting on a cannon that was part of the Civil War Memorial–a popular snapshot location until it was removed during World War II. As time goes on photography has become more and more accessible to the average person, with personal snapshots and big smiles front and center.
Boyd, Margaret. “Pocket Diary for 1873.” Digital Initiatives. Ohio University. 1873. Web. 29 Dec 2011.
“The Brownie Camera @ 100: A Celebration.” Kodak. http://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/features/brownieCam/. Web. 14 Nov 2012.
“Women students sitting on a cannon, Student Union in background.” Digital Initiatives. Ohio University. http://media.library.ohiou.edu/cdm/ref/collection/archives/id/610. Web. 14 Nov 2012.
Wood, L. “Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photographs?” [http://ohiohistory.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/why-dont-people-smile-in-old-photographs/] Ohio Historical Society Collections Blog. Web. 14 Nov 2012.