Photographing Expressions (II): Charles Darwin

In the previous post, we saw how Duchenne de Boulogne started to use photography in his experiments on the expression of the passions. In spite of his originality, he remained an outsider of the medical community and his work mostly unknown until a major, influential book rescued his experiments 10 years later: The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, by the prestigious Charles Darwin.

Our protagonist needs no presentation. He was one of the most prominent scientist of his time, and has later become an icon: he is the first name that comes to our minds if we talk about evolution.

Darwin photographed by the Stereoscopic Company / Wellcome Images

Darwin photographed by the Stereoscopic Company / Wellcome Images

Darwin started to be interested in the expression of emotions when his first son was born. It seemed that his little child was acquiring expressions as he was growing up: his ability to smile, for example, was developed in time. Moreover, at this stage his reactions were completely automatic, an interesting fact for him. He wrote all these impressions in his notebooks, and began to pay attention to the expressions of the adults. Little by little, this subject gained importance in his work. The universality of expressions, together with the instinctual character of some of them and the similarities with animals’ expressions, seemed compatible with his theory of evolution. With the aim of testing his theory, Darwin asked his correspondents abroad to complete tests about the uses of expressions of people in different countries.

Besides this, he also built a large photographic collection. He asked Duchenne whether he could use some of his photographs in his work, and exchanged letters and thoughts with James Crichton Browne, a British psychiatrist who was taking portraits of his patients at the West  Riding Lunatic Asylum. But Darwin also used other photographic sources. Commercial photographers sent him photographs that could be if his interest. When he was in London, he used to walk looking at the windows of the photographic studios in search for photographs that would show good expressions. It was in one of these strolls that he spotted the photograph of a crying child that conveyed exactly the expression he was looking for.

Crying child/ Ginx's Baby , Oscar Rejlander, 1871 /Wellcome Library Images

Crying child/ Ginx’s Baby , Oscar Rejlander, 1871 /Wellcome Library Images

This photograph prompted a fruitful collaboration between Darwin and Oscar Rejlander, a skilled artistic photographer. Rejlander tried to portray the expressions which were the most difficult to represent, using his wife as a model or even posing himself.

The differences between Duchenne’s and Darwin’s projects are striking. Not only were they defending opposite theories, but also used photography in different ways. Unlike Duchenne’s, Darwin’s collection was an amalgam of faces and bodies. He did neither involved himself in the production of the photographs, nor asked the photographers to follow any scientific procedure. The photographs taken by doctors had the same valued as the portraits made by commercial photographers. And this is precisely what makes his project interesting. The studio portraits allowed the Victorian reader to identify themselves with the images. After all, they had been in the same situation in the photographic studio, and they were used to look at these photographs. This familiarity helped facilitate the acceptation of his theories on the origin and the function of expressions, and particularly the links between animals’ and human beings’ expressions.

These portraits also constructed the idea of the “natural expressions”. Despite the technical limitations of the time, Darwin trusted the instantaneous photography could provide images of natural expressions, that is, expressions that had not been faked or staged (or at least, that didn’t look like that). This naturalness was the opposite idea of what Duchenne had done. Maybe this is why Darwin included Duchenne’s photographs as woodcuts in his book, and removed the electrodes of the final images.

In spite of all these differences, Darwin consolidated the idea that the expressions could be identified with the instant. His use of instantaneous photography was precisely intended to do that. All the movements that led to a smile, for example, were therefore removed from the representation of the expression. The smile was the complete smile. As I said before, this idea has penetrated so much that even today we use this kind of images to represent our emotions. But, what if we started to conceived expressions under a different light? The coming posts will deal with other 19th-century projects that challenged this paradigm.