Most of us tend to smile whenever we see someone we know pointing a camera towards us. In fact, it’s as though smiling has become a reflex whenever we notice a camera. However, that wasn’t the case back in the day—at least before the 20th century. So, when a photo taken in 1894 of a Native American lady smiling surfaced online, it quickly went viral for its rarity and for somehow defying the age-old trend.
Taken by photographer George W. Bretz, the photo features a Native American lady named O-o-dee of the Kiowa people. She is captured standing by a draped pedestal and wearing a fringed buckskin dress with an elk-tooth decoration. Indeed, the photo is an ode to O-o-dee’s indigenous roots and the remarkable craftsmanship of the Kiowa tribe. But there’s one more thing that people found strikingly captivating about her portrait—the way she charmingly smiled at the camera, that is.
An extremely rare photo taken in 1894 has gone viral for featuring a Native American lady captured smiling for the camera
In case you haven’t noticed, portraits taken during the 1800s typically feature subjects with straight faces. Apparently, putting on a happy expression in front of the camera wasn’t a thing back then. So, O-o-dee’s photo is essentially a rare one, if not the only one at the time that portrays a happy-looking subject.
Interestingly, researchers have come up with several theories as to why people looked serious in historic photographs. Many have linked the trend to the technical limitations of cameras back then. At that time, cameras had long exposure times, which made it challenging for subjects to hold their smiles. Another possible reason is that people were probably not confident with how their teeth looked.
Meanwhile, other experts have suggested that not smiling in photos is likely a custom that people had adopted from portrait painting. Moreover, availing of these services was a luxury back then. So, people considered them as a formal experience in which it was not suitable to smile or goof around.
Fast forward to today, this explains why many people found O-o-dee’s lovely photo amusing. And when a Reddit user shared it online, it quickly garnered positive responses from other users. One user commented, “Wow. What a smile can do. Suddenly it looks like this photo was taken a lot more recently.” “She looks like that was just her personality. Not smiling would probably have been unnatural for her,” said another.
The photograph is currently under the safekeeping of the Smithsonian Institution as part of its National Anthropological Archives. It’s also part of Bretz’s album of Kiowa and Comanche Indians which appeared in an auction in 2019.