After a summer break with a couple of posts, I continue with the series on “Photographing Gestures & Expressions”. This is the main topic of my current project -so yeah, I should be talking about it! The first three posts were on Duchenne de Boulogne, Darwin and La Salpêtrière, which are the most known examples. But the story is way longer than these early examples, and it just gets more interesting…
The use of photography at La Salpêtrière evolved during the years, and especially since the arrival of the French photographer Albert Londe -my favorite character ever. Londe was hired as a chemist at the laboratory in 1882, became chief of the photographic service two years later and one of the editors of the journal Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière since 1888. At the Salpêtrière, Londe collaborated with Paul Richer and others, capturing their experiments. But he also developed a parallel activity as an inventor and disseminator of photographic techniques, in which he started to apply what he had learned at the Salpêtrière. For example, he advised that photographers should not use the magnesium flash to illuminate nervous patients, as the flash could provoke them a hysterical attack.
Albert Londe took these photographs as part of Georges Guinon’s and Sophie Woltke’s research on the effects of sensorial excitation during hypnosis on hysterical women. As usual, they illustrated an article published in the Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtrière in 1891. In it, Guinon and Woltke tested the sensorial excitation of the patients by presenting glasses of different colours, approaching different scents, and making noises.
I particularly like these photographs for several reasons:
First, they materialise an approach to psychology that marked a whole generation in France: the pathological psychology. Following the principles on physiology of Claude Bernard and others, Charcot as well as Guinon and Woltke, and the psychologists Théodule Ribot and Georges Dumas, defended that pathological states were a kind of natural state of experimentation. In this regard, instead of experimenting with the human body, one could just study its variation during illness. This would reveal the normal state of the body.
In this particular case, pathological psychology was applied through hypnosis. At this time, there were a big debate in France about hypnosis, and whether this was a state of the mind induced by suggestion, or, as Charcot defended, a somatic state produced by physiological and nervous reactions. This materialistic approach was seen by Charcot as the only way to prove that hypnosis was real -a thing that happened by scientific means, not faked by some patients and celebrity doctors.
Moreover, Charcot argued that only hysterical patients could be hypnotised -precisely because if their particular nervous condition. Hypnosis, therefore, was a method to study pathological conditions (hysteria) that revealed the normal functioning of the nerves and the muscles.
Following this reasoning, these photographs of hysterical patients under hypnosis showed normal gestures of joy or fear. Although these gestures were performed by women with a pathology, the pathological method allowed the understanding of these results in relation to the normal.
Second, these photographs and others introduced a new category to understand gestures. If we look at the plates, we immediately perceive that the photographs were arranged in groups. Most of the times, two of the photographs represented the same reaction. For instance, Guinon and Woltke described the following scene when a dark green glass was approached to the women: she smelled a flower, put it into her corset, picked up more flowers from the ground to put them in the corset, in a sequence that was repeated until she was stopped. They illustrated this scene with the figures 3 and 4 reproduced in the plate above.
The disposition of the photographs in the plate, together with the medical explanation, led the reader to associate emotional reactions to a sequence of gestures: the movement. And movement was precisely what was completely absent in the previous studies of emotions. Duchenne and Darwin froze expressions, while Londe and his team found a way to recognise the key role of movement in the performance of gestures and expressions. Acknowledging movement was not only hand-in-hand with the recognition of bodily gestures as essential expressive means. It also involved, as we will see in the next post, a whole new conception of photography: chronophotography.