Photographing Expressions

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

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

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

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.

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 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

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.

La Salpêtrière

One of the early medical uses of photography that has been more extensively studied are the photographs of hysterical women taken at the Parisian hospital La Salpêtrière. Under the direction of the Dr Jean-Martin Charcot, neurologists and clinicians started to study hysteria, a disease that was mainly characterised by the absence of a set of coherent symptoms and causes. Among the methods that Charcot and others established to define these symptoms was photography. There has been much discussion on whether Charcot actually used visual evidences to do his research, or only as pedagogical tools to disseminate his findings. Anyhow, Bourneville and Regnard opened a photographic service around 1875, and started to portray the patients – not without difficulty. The attacks could not be (or were not supposed to be) foreseen, and the women moved too fast to record their poses.

Planche XX. Attitudes Passionnelles. Supplication Amoureuse. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

These are important photographs for many reasons. They did help Charcot to establish his expertise on hysteria and to gain reputation. He had such a success that one of the most recurrent critics towards his theories was that hysteria had become a fashionable disease, and that no hysterical woman behaved in such a perfect way as the hysterics of the Salpêtrière. Basically, he was accused of constructing the disease. But from a historical viewpoint, these photographs also tells us much about, at least, two related things: gender and the gestures of the body.

Most of the patients were, in fact, women. Although Charcot also recognised the male hysteria, in this first stage (1875-1880) all the photographs were about women. Women who were indeed in bed clothes or almost naked and adopting strange and erotic positions with their bodies, which were out of their control -they were not conscious during the attacks. But the photographers, the doctors and the viewers of the photographs, published in the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, were all -almost all- men. The photographs in this post correspond to phase of “passional attitudes”, which was highly erotised.

Planche XXII. Attitudes Passionnelles. Erotisme Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

These photographs also reveal changes in the conception of the expression of the passions. Against Darwin and Duchenne, Bourneville and Regnard were not very interested in the faces of their patients. Photographs had to capture the symptoms of the hysteria, and hysteria manifested itself through the whole body. Therefore, the clinical interest in defining the typical phases of hysteria led to consider that passions were expressed through gestures as much as through facial expressions. The focus shifted from the face to the body.

I consider highly suggesting the fact that the interest in the body came hand in hand with the sexualization of female bodies. But for this project, I am interested in how gestures became problematic from a photographic point of view. If hysteria manifested itself through a whole attack, how could single photographs of single moments capture the disease? In the next post we will see how the photographer Albert Londe tried to answer these questions.

Albert Londe & Hypnosis

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.

L0051692 Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtriêre Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images i

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.

L0051693 Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtriêre Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

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.