Pale face

I've often wondered why the families in portrait photographs from the mid-1800s always seem slightly unreal. Apparently because of the limited amount of light in photographic studios, the subjects would have their faces covered in white make up to reflect better in the camera. So that the subjects could keep perfectly still, a brace was used to hold the waist of the woman in the chair or any children standing by in place. The other reason that family isn't smiling is because to do so would seem foolish because they'd be making fun of something which was massively expensive at the time. Also -- and this explains everything -- the subjects often had their eye lids closed during the taking of the photo and their eyes would be painted in later when the image was printed which is why the iris never looks quite right.


  1. I took an art history course in photography. This post is at least half-true.

    1. Never heard of painting faces white for better light. The problem wasn't solely low light, but slow chemicals and thus long exposure times, which meant...

    2. Yes, braces, mounted on stands, were used extensivley to hold people (esp. their necks) still during the long exposure times.

    3. People didn't smile because it was hard to hold those muscles still for so long (but the making fun part may also be true).

    4. Never heard of eyelids being closed, but touch-ups to prints were as common then as photoshoping is now.

  2. Anonymous8:51 pm

    You don't have to close your eyes on long exposures. You can blink, because the blink takes up only a small fraction of the whole length of the exposure, so it doesn't *really* register on the photo. The blinking may show up as a slight blurriness in the eyes. (The iris would be blurred too if the subjects moved their eyes a lot during the exposure instead of looking at the lens.)

  3. I should explain that I heard all of that during a tour of the Kodak gallery at the Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford at the weekend.