I love going through old photographs, and I bet everyone over the age of 40 has a boxful of old prints tucked away somewhere. There are sepia-tinted or black and white images of weddings, birthdays and holidays, kids taking their first steps/bike rides, friends or graduation memories.

Wartime snaps of men in uniform, family groups and pictures of people you maybe don’t even know, because the collection of photos was handed down, and you didn’t get the time to ask who they were.

Lack of smiles

I noticed that most people looked solemn and unsmiling, and we have to go back in time to before photography to find out why, where the way of preserving images was through painted portraits. It was traditional for people in these commissioned portraits to have stoic, grave expressions, and if they did smile, it would be slight. Photography took guidance from painted portraits —an art form in which many found grins uncouth and inappropriate. Saints might be depicted with faint smiles, but wider smiles were associated with madness, lewdness, loudness or drunkenness, all states that were not particularly decorous.

Accordingly, photographers would create an elegant setting and direct the subject on how to behave, producing the staid expressions which are so familiar in 19th century photographs. The images they created were formal and befitted the expense of paying to have a portrait made, especially when it might be the only picture taken in their entire life, and the tradition of unsmiling expressions continued because it was familiar, with the best way of capturing someone’s likeness not being changed.

Another reason for the lack of smiles was that exposure time was so lengthy that it was impossible to hold a smile for so long, and a comfortable position would be chosen. But by the 1850s and ’60s it was possible in the right conditions to take photographs with only a few seconds of exposure time, and shorter exposures became more widely available. That means the technology needed to capture fleeting expressions like a genuine smile was available long before such a look became common.


It was expensive too - while today our phones have cameras, back then, commissioning a studio photo was costly and people saved for the luxury, and it was seen as a quite serious business. In the early days of cameras, not many people were photographed, with few having their own cameras. Accordingly, most people only got photographed once in their life, which meant it was not taken lightly, and it must have been difficult to relax.

One possibility is that bad teeth could have been a cause for early photography’s close-lipped images. People had lousy teeth, if they had teeth at all, so perhaps better dental care increased photography smiles.

Say prunes!

‘Prunes’ not ‘cheese’ – it’s true! Photographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries instructed their subject to say ‘prunes’ when they were posing for the camera. This was meant to make the mouth appear smaller than it was - a sign of beauty at the time, and also reflected the proper etiquette of the age, namely to be demure and reserved.

A trend for taking pictures of loved ones taken after they died may seem morbid to us, but in the past, it was a way of commemorating the dead and softening grief during a time when death from disease was common. This was called ‘memento mori’, and in images that are both unsettling and poignant, families posed with the dead, with infants appearing to sleep or young ladies reclined elegantly in chairs - some of the dead even having their eyes painted on closed lids to make them look alive.

It took until the 1920s and ’30s for smiles to start becoming the standard expression in photographs. It all changed with the introduction of the 1900 Brownie camera, one of the first early cameras that were accessible and affordable to the public. As photography technology became more accessible to everyday people, photos were more spontaneous and captured candid smiles and laughter, so saying ‘say cheese’ was introduced as a way to encourage a cheesy smile, though today’s fashionable pouty lips might have some going back to saying ‘say prunes’!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan