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July 30, 2017

'Willy' Smiling, 1853: The First Smile Ever Photographed

The photograph is simply labeled “Willy.” It features a young man with close-cropped hair and dressed in fine clothing, including a collared shirt and jacket. Willy is looking at something amusing off to his right, and the photograph captured just the hint of a smile from him—the first ever recorded, according to experts at the National Library of Wales.

A photograph of William Mansel (1838-1866) smiling at something off camera. Taken c.1853. (National Library of Wales)

Willy’s portrait was taken in 1853, when he was 18. He was captured on film because he was born into the Dillwyn family from Swansea in Wales, whose photography hobby was inspired by relative-by-marriage Henry Fox Talbot, who invented salt print and the Calotype. Two members of the family were particularly notable: Willy’s father, John Dillwyn Llewelyn, was a botanist who took the earliest-ever photographs of Wales.

This particular photograph, however, was taken by John’s sister Mary, who is important in her own right for being one of the first female Welsh photographers. She was among the first to avoid the formal photography used during that time, favoring smaller cameras with short exposure times that could capture informal moments. With this method, she took photos of Willy smiling, the first-ever pictured snowman, and the famous “peeping” girl—perhaps the world’s first photobomb.

Willy’s smiling image, part of a collection from Mary Dillwyn, are particularly valuable as such images are so rare from that time. Images like this ‘smile’ image are the first of their kind and that means they will always inspire and capture the imagination.

(via Wikimedia)


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