Thursday, November 17, 2016

Rare Old West Smilers, Part II: The Myth of The Long Exposure

November 17, 2016
   Okay, I posted a series of photographs of In-dins smiling yesterday to illustrate an upcoming feature in True West magazine on the real reason for the lack of smiles in Old West photos. I also mentioned that the reason most people didn't smile has nothing to do with bad teeth, wool long johns (see quote, below) or long exposures. This prompted the following response:

"Early glass and tin type photography had very long exposures. People were told not to move. The photos you are showing are after 1900 when film changed and exposures were much shorter. More candid and natural looking pictures could be taken."

Exposing The Exposure Myth

Well, sorry to rain on the long exposure theory, but here is a very early photograph of a gent grinning in the 1850s when the exposures were at their longest:

   And there are quite a few more. So far, our production manager, Robert Ray, has found at least a dozen more 1850s smilers. This shoots down the Long Exposure Theory completely. What's interesting here is, this also undermines the Portrait Theory—that artists for centuries had been painting most of their subjects with a serious look and that this somberness segued into photography—well, that doesn't quite hold up here as photography was in its infancy. In other words, you might make a case that painted portraits were for the most part somber affairs and when photography started gaining traction, the photographers emulated painters and shot their subjects with serious looks, but then later, as exposures were shortened, people loosened up and we get more smilers. This seems to upend that order. We have a new technology and many people are smiling right off the bat. It almost seems as if they later went the other way, and that in the 1860s, 70s and 80s sitters reverted to the serious look.

   Either way, for a more in depth take on the subject, read Rita Ackerman's piece, "Smile!" in an upcoming issue of True West magazine.

"If you were wearing wool long johns, you wouldn't smile either."
—R. Batson


  1. Anonymous5:19 PM

    Yes its an early 1850's photograph but that does not prove he did not hold that smile for 3 to 5 minutes.

  2. “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.” (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)

  3. It might be that during and after the Civil War, many people didn't have much to smile about. There might also be a feeling among the subjects of the portraits that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing and they adopted the most dignified pose they could manage. We take photography for granted today- It's everywhere. Back then... Many folks may have only had the one photograph made, and believing that it might be the only one, they took it very seriously.


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