Mixed emotions

One of the very human traits that is literally written all over our face, is our emotions. Be it happy or sad, scared or angry, this is usually immediately obvious by our facial expressions. Some people are able to hide their emotions well (they make great card players!) but most of us make our feelings pretty clear.

Capturing these moments using a camera is a common practice and helps us to remember what was happening at the time, such as a family portrait. It is worth noting though, that people in the past viewed showing their emotions in photographs in a very different light. Have you ever noticed that people in early photographs never smile? There have been many theories regarding the reason for this - was it their bad teeth? This is unlikely since most people had bad teeth due to poor dental hygiene at the time.

Ref: Herman Schmidt, Bullen family, Auckland, c. 1890s, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 31-68325

One very plausible theory, is that smiles were differently perceived in the past, as a result of painterly traditions. These traditions were adopted by photography when it was first introduced and had a great influence on this new visual form. Rather than a smile being seen as something positive (as we see it now), it was seen in a negative light. The reason being that only the drunk, poor, the innocent or those in the entertainment business were depicted smiling in paintings. So if you were upper class and didn't want those negative associations, you avoided smiling at all costs in photographs!

Ref: WH Davis, Tamihana Te Rauparaha and Wi Kerei Kupapa, Wellington, c. 1870-1879, Wellington, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 661-27

Due to the long exposure times of early photography, it was also reasonably difficult to hold a natural looking smile for a long time without moving or looking very stiff. So this was another good reason to avoid smiling.

The title of this blog post - 'Mixed Emotions' also reflects my feelings today, since it is my last formal blog post for Heritage et AL (but watch this space, I may have a few more posts up my sleeve ...). Its been a great ride since I set up the blog in mid May 2012 and I'm proud to have watched it grow and receive such great contributions from heritage staff at Auckland Libraries and comments from you, the readers. Long may it continue to be successful!

As I bid you e noho rā, please enjoy this selection  of photographs drawn form the heritage collections at Auckland Libraries and hope it makes you smile!

Happy - smiling:

Ref: Alton Francis, smiling trio, Auckland, c. 1963, photograph reproduced by permission of Mrs Diane Francis, South Auckland Research Centre, Footprints 02521

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, smile of success, 1938, no location, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19380413-44-5

Ref: Clifton Firth, model for Pyradent toothpaste, c. 1940s, no location, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 34-D270P-16

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, fun in the snow in Auckland, 1939, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19390802-43-2

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, a policeman and revellers at a carnival, Bedford, England, 1926, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19260610-52-3

Happy - laughing (and its not just humans that laugh!):

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, a laugh with a lamb, 1937, no location, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19370901-53-5

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, a horse laughing at the Royal Agricultural Show, Sydney, 1927, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19270512-49-1

Ref: Tornquist, Master Stevenson, c. 1924, no location, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 601-2458B

Unhappy - crying:

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, a smile and a cry champion babies, no location, 1939, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19390823-40-2

Unhappy - melancholy or glum:

Ref: Herman Schmidt, members of an opera company, Auckland, 1909, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 31-5766

Ref: Tornquist, Miss NIxon, c. 1920s-1930s, no location, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 601-2390B

Ref: James Richardson, boys from St Stephens College, 1889, Parnell, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-2670C

Angry or cross:

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, Mr HR Roberts as Svengali, no locations, 1899, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-18990331-4-4

Ref: Hanna, Mr JM McLachlan and Mrs Coyle, no location, 1899, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-18991020-4-2

Author: Natasha Barrett 


  1. Haere ra Natasha. I've only been here for a couple of months but have enjoyed your blogs. They are a great look at our heritage and would be a great idea for a weekly column in the herald!

  2. Thank you Paul for your kind words! I'm glad the posts have been enjoyed by yourself and others :)


Post a Comment

Kia ora! Please leave your comment below.