My friend Jim, a professional photographer, is an expert at restoring vintage photos that have become damaged or faded with the passage of years. He’s often asked why people usually aren’t smiling in old photos, a question I’ve wondered as well.
No one knows for certain, Jim says, but there are three theories: First, because camera shutter and film speeds were so slow, people had to hold their poses for a number of seconds. If they smiled and then stopped, their mouths would have appeared blurred in the photo. It was easier not to smile.
Another explanation suggests that because dental hygiene wasn’t very advanced back then, people were reluctant to smile and show the bad condition of their teeth. That reason’s not as likely, my friend suspects.
|If my mother was|
supposed to smile
in this photo from
her 20's, she didn't
get the memo.
A third reason seems most plausible: To smile in a photo was considered socially unacceptable. Jean-Baptiste De LaSalle, writing in The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility, stated in 1703, “There are some people who raise their upper lip so high…that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.”
More than 300 years later, that’s obviously not in issue for our times. We live in the age of the “selfie,” when countless smart phone owners turn self-portraits into instant art. Some people lacking in good judgment purportedly (I’ve never been an eyewitness of this) send out photos of themselves wearing nothing more than a smile. Thankfully, that’s still frowned upon even in our increasingly licentious society.
But getting back to the unsmiling subjects in photos from bygone eras, today photos of people not smiling seem equally uncommon. To “say cheese” is not only accepted – it’s expected. That is, unless the photo being taken of you is for a police mug shot, in which case smiling seems weird. Most of us would agree revealing our pearly whites shows us at our best, making us appear to be the nicest, friendliest person ever. (Even if we’re not.)
Out of curiosity, I looked to see what the Bible says about smiling. It says…absolutely nothing. The word “smile” does not appear in the original translations even once.
Not that the Bible – or God – have anything against smiling. The words “laugh,” “laughing” and “laughter” are used in the Scriptures at least 40 times. And if there was laughing going on, we can presume smiles were happening, too. Try laughing without smiling – your face will explode.
But in a biblical sense, laughing isn’t always presented in a happy way. Speaking about people conspiring to rebel against God, Psalm 2:4 states, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” When aging Sarah received the promise from God that she would at last bear a child, Abraham’s wife laughed but in disbelief.
Later, however, her laughter was justified and no doubt accompanied by one of the biggest smiles in history. After their son, Isaac, was born, Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6). Isaac, in Hebrew, means “laughter” or “he who laughs.”
Most often the Bible speaks not of happiness but joy, which we could define as “smiling on the inside,” even when things happening around us are unpleasant or even distressful. James 1:3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
So we can smile inwardly, even in adversity, trusting the times of difficulty will be used for our ultimate good, helping to shape us into the people God intends for us to be. And that’s nothing to sneer at.