Why do young people in old photos look old?

19 July 2022

This is something I’ve often wondered about. I’m looking at a photo portrait that might be one hundred years old, of a person who is, or was, aged about twenty at the time the photo was taken. Despite their obvious youth, they still somehow look… old. Why should that be though? It’s a question that Michael Stevens, host of Vsauce, explores in a recent video.

The phenomenon of people who seem to be older at a younger age, is something Stevens calls retrospective aging. People today, he tells us, are aging at a slower rate than those who came before us. Lifestyle and nutrition changes, better healthcare, less smoking, and even the wider spread use of sunscreen, all make a difference. But there’s more to it, as Stevens explains.

As to the one hundred year photo of the twenty year old, who indeed looks twenty and not thirty-five, but still seems old, is something I call the illusion of age.

Compare photography of a century ago with the casual nature of selfie snaps today. One hundred years ago cameras were not as ubiquitous as they are today. Back then, having your photo taken was an occasion. People dressed elegantly. Put on their best clothes. Suits, evening dresses. Tidied up their appearance. People also tended to pose more formally, and seldom smiled. They looked serious. Not to mention their hairstyles, which also suggest a bygone era. All of those factors could combine to present someone in a more mature, older, light.

Then there’s the fact we know said photo is a century old. We’re looking at someone we know, were they still alive, would be aged well over one hundred. The image, the illusion, of an old person, therefore presents itself in our minds. The young person — unfortunately — looks old to our eyes.

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