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Why Do Victorians Look So Serious in Photos?

victorian photo charles dickens

This is a question I wondered about after looking at this unsmiling photograph of Charles Dickens. People looked so solemn then, whereas nowadays we smile until our jaws are almost aching. Our pictures are about portraying an image of happiness, whether we feel that way or not. Perhaps Victorians were a bit more sincere about depicting what life was representing for them.

In 1839 a French romantic artist and photographer, Louis – Jacques Mandé Daguerre invented a type of photographic equipment called a ‘Daguerreotype’. A Daguerreotype was a picture which was made on a silver plated surface, sensitised with iodine, and developed by exposure to mercury vapour. He exhibited his creation to the members of the French Académie des sciences and the Académie des beaux-arts. This was greatly received by the members.

Cameras had a very slow exposure time in the 19th century and being photographed didn’t happen very often, as it was expensive. So having their photo taken would have being very important to the person. It was a formal event and people really dressed up for it.

victorian image 1

Photographs were based upon portraits, which would also explain the fixed expression of the person. Exposure time took about 15 minutes and people were asked to place their heads in head rests for this time. I would imagine that the headrests wouldn’t have felt very comfortable and this would have deterred them from smiling.

In Victorian times dental hygiene wasn’t of the same standard as it is today. Bad teeth were extracted and not replaced. Missing teeth would have made the person feel very self-conscious, and discouraged him from smiling.
I think old photography is much more interesting than modern photography. I’m automatically more drawn to black and white photographs. They just seem to tell more of a story than a coloured photograph. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

victorian photo 2
Victorian people were very formal and that certainly comes across in their photographs. Although they look sombre, I find myself captivated by some of the haunting expressions of the people being photographed. It makes me wonder what their lives were like then. And what would they think of the frivolous photographs of today?

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