“They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do.” Philip Larkin wrote in his most quoted poem. But it’s the second verse that’s of interest here:

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Which pretty much captured our idea of the Victorians, staring grimly through the sepia at the photographer’s lens. We know that this was a result of the long exposure times required in 19th century photography, and the impossibility of holding a smile, but we forget. Now, uber retro site How to be a Retronaut has featured the Flickr site “smiling Victorians” — photos taken when new processes had cut exposure time to two seconds, show stiff hatted and cloaked folk smiling, laughing, playing about …

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The result is instant, astounding, intensely moving. They suddenly spring out of the monochrome, not as imperial nitwits, or miserable moralists, but as laughing, living, loving people, brought close to us in an instant. The photos defeat the strangest effect of all of early photography — that it made the 19th century more distant to us than any. Hogarth told you that 18th century London was pretty much like 4pm at the Big Day Out. Plato’s dialogues made it clear that Athens was LA without Starbucks. But our immediate ancestors seemed from another planet. In these photos they rejoin, become almost confrontingly intimate. Freed from the stone visages of official portraits, they remind us of lucky Phil’s great other line — “what will survive of us is love”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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