The new exhibit at Woodstock Museum focuses on portrait photography of the past

Long before taking a selfie was as easy as pulling your phone out of your pocket, capturing a portrait was a serious undertaking.

A new exhibit at the Woodstock Museum gives a snapshot into the history of portrait photography as far back as 160 years ago — from the late 1800s to early 1900s — when smiles were a rare sight.

Don’t Smile opened Saturday and highlights about 100 vintage portraits collected in Ontario’s Oxford County, curated from the museum’s collection of more than 13,000 images.

“We don’t think anything of taking a photo now,” said Adam Pollard, curator of the collection at the Woodstock Museum. “Back then…it would have been a big event.”

The exhibit goes back in time to when getting a portrait taken was an expensive endeavor, said Pollard.

three kids in a sepia photo portrait
This photo from 1865 of Daisy, George and John Rose is featured in the Don’t Smile exhibit. In most early portrait photography, no one is smiling, which comes out of portrait painting, said curator Adam Pollard. (Submitted by Woodstock Museum)

It takes us back to an earlier time where this was an outing, an event — and even owning a photograph in early times was something special, he said.

“You had to get dressed up, you had to go to a studio, you would have been posed in positions. They would have taken a couple of photos, and hopefully they would have got a good one.”

The first commercial photography came around by 1849, but it didn’t get to places like Woodstock or London until the 1850s or 1860s.

Smiles were rare in early portrait photography

Don’t Smile comes out of the fact that in most early photography, you don’t see anyone smiling,” said Pollard.

While there are a lot of theories why, Pollard said it comes out of sitting for long periods of time for portrait paintings, as the next evolution of the portrait.

On top of that, the first portrait photography required long exposure times upwards of 20 seconds. “It was hard to hold a smile for that long,” he said, though as technology evolved, the time soon came down to a second or two.

man in low lighting inside
Pollard says that in the later 1800s, getting your portrait taken was an event and something we take for granted today. (Submitted by Woodstock Museum)

Back then, copper plates and chemical solutions were used to develop photos, but came at a high cost. When glass plates came around, the cost went down. Photos could be printed into multiple copies on paper.

More smiles emerged when the Kodak Brownie camera was released in the early 1900s. People started taking their own candid snapshots with people smiling. That bled into the majority of photographic studios around that time.

The exhibit features several famous faces from history such as Alexander Graham Bell, John A. MacDonald and con artist Cassie Chadwick.

museum panels with old portrait photos
Cabinet cards were the primary style of portrait photography from after the 1870s to the early 1900s, according to the exhibit. They were photos printed on paper and mounted on a card. (Submitted by Woodstock Museum)

For those looking to capture a bit of the past, a historic studio camera and portable studio camera from the late 1800s or early 1900s are on display. The cameras, on loan from the Annandale National Historic Site and Museum, were once used in a Tillsonburg photography studio, Pollard said.

The photos used in the exhibit are all reproductions because light can be very damaging for old photographs, he said. It also allows them to do some enhancements to faded or damaged photos.

“It’s very important for us to keep the collection safe,” he said.


WHERE TO FIND IT:

What: Don’t Smile: A selection of early photographic portraits exhibit.
Runs: June 10 to September 9.
Where: Woodstock Museum National Historical Site, 466 Dundas St. in Woodstock, Ont.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Explore More

Labrador In Focus photography exhibit turns a lens on the Big Land

Labrador In Focus photography exhibit turns a lens on the Big Land
April 24, 2023 0 Comments 2 tags

Photographs from youth in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation are set to be on display this weekend. CBC’s Library Partnership Project, CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, Melville Public

Veteran photographer K. Jayaram, pioneer in macrophotography in India, dies in Coimbatore

Veteran photographer K. Jayaram, pioneer in macrophotography in India, dies in Coimbatore
July 8, 2023 0 Comments 2 tags

K. Jayaram | Photo Credit: File photo Acclaimed nature photographer K. Jayaram, who is regarded as a pioneer in macro photography in India, died in Coimbatore on Sunday. He was

OM Digital Solutions Corporation Opens Their New Technology Centre: Great News for the Photography Industry

OM Digital Solutions Corporation Opens Their New Technology Centre: Great News for the Photography Industry
April 9, 2023 0 Comments 2 tags

OM Digital Solutions has announced the opening of a new Technology Centre, close to its Research and Development base in Tokyo. This is superb news for photographers and the wider