Photographing Expressions and Gestures (I): Duchenne de Boulogne

“Say cheese!”

And we all know that we have to smile in front of the camera. This seems quite natural, we all do it (or at least we know that this is the convention). But, has it always been like this? Have this and others performances in front of the camera affected the way we express our emotions and feelings? In the series of posts “Photographing Expressions and Gestures” I will comment on the main scientific projects of the turn of the 19th century that used photographic technologies with the purpose of defining facial expressions and bodily gestures as scientific objects. I will show that photography not only provided images, but also constructed expressions and gestures in particular ways.

The first protagonist of this history is the French physician Duchenne de Boulogne. Working at the parisian hospital La Salpêtrière, Duchenne sought to find the “language of the passions”, that is, the scientific principles that underlie the expressions associated with each passion. In order to discover this “orthography” of the passions, Duchenne applied a revolutionary method: faradization. He applied electrical currents to specific points of the muscles in order to make them contract and thereby provoke the expressions. Faradazing the muscles allowed the study of the physiology of the living being: instead of dissecting the muscles of the corpse, Duchenne was looking at the muscles in movement. Precisely because of this, Duchenne needed also another technology able to record the results of the electrical stimulations. And he turned to photography.

Duchenne and the faradization machine / Wellcome Images

Duchenne and the faradization machine / Wellcome Images

This and most of the photographs published in Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine (1862) were taken around 1856 by Duchenne himself with the assistance of the French photographer Adrien Tournachon, brother of the famous photographer Nadar. These are fascinating objects for many reasons. Even today, they are quite disturbing images. When I show them to people for the first time, they usually read them as a kind of “torture”, worrying about the man object of the experiment. For a set of different reasons related to moral and religious conventions, these images were also disturbing for nineteenth-century audiences. In fact, Duchenne’s project did not success at the time, and these photographs only became known by the public with their publication in Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (in which the electrodes were removed, by the way), in 1872. Maybe this is why Duchenne justified in his book that the old man of the previous photograph, who is the subject of most of the images, suffered from a rare skin condition and could not feel any pain during the experiments.

But these photographs did not only prompted emotional reactions. Their aim was not to provoke emotions, but to define how expressions looked like. With this purpose, Duchenne took a good care of the whole photographic process. For example, he cropped the photographs in order to address the attention of the viewer to the face of the subjects.

Fig. 48 / Wellcome images

Fig. 48 / Wellcome images

Duchenne also included synoptic tables in some editions of Mécanisme, in which each photograph was reproduced up to three times (image 7, for example). The masks that cover parts of the face were intended to help the reader to understand his experiments on grimaces, expressions that have no sense because they do not correspond to any passion and that had been provoked by stimulating random muscles of the face.

Synoptic table / Wellcome images

Synoptic table / Wellcome images

So important was photography to Duchenne that he even erased the name of Tournachon from early versions of these photographs, presented to the French national Volta prix in 1857. All these manipulations suggest that photography was more than a representational tool. Photographs did not merely illustrate the scientific text, but added information to it. While the faradization method stimulated the muscles and the text explained their movement, the photographs only showed the instant. The expression as a scientific object was reduced to this instant captured by photography and held by faradization.

As we will see in next posts, this idea of identifying the expressions with the instant and the preeminence of the face as the locus of emotions became the paradigm of most of later studies. But it always had to do with the photographic practices set in motion.

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