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Monday, September 04, 2006

Who is this Man, and Why is He Sticking Wires in People's Heads?

by Oren Grad

It's Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne de Boulogne, renowned 19th-century French neurologist, physiologist and photographer.

In 1852, Duchenne began to photograph his experiments in the electrical stimulation of facial muscles, leading to the publication in 1862 of le Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine ou analyse électro-physiologique de l'expression des passions (cited in English, and recently republished, as The Mechanism of Human Facial Expressions). As explained in a nice review essasy by photographic historian Marta Braun, Duchenne's striking photographs posed quite a conundrum:

Rather than signs of inner emotions, of consciousness, of what, in fact, separated man from animal, Duchenne's photographs recorded fear, joy, disdain, or terror as mere physiological facts that could be provoked by electricity and measured by the camera.
The point was not lost on Charles Darwin, who drew heavily on Duchenne's work in his 1872 treatise The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (browse it online here).

Today, the plates from Mechanism are highly valued as landmarks of photographic history and art. Selected images are widely available in inkjet reproduction for those who appreciate their faintly ghoulish charm.

Posted by: OREN GRAD


Blogger Michael said...

The first anthropology society in the UK was a direct descendant of the phrenological society, i.e. study of bumps on the head. Somehow it all hangs together...

5:09 PM  
Blogger David A. Goldfarb said...

The idea that fixed facial expressions are correlated with specific emotional states was also important in the system of acting proposed by Francois Delsarte around the same time as these photographs were made. This accounts for the stylized poses one sees in some silent films and 19th-century postcards of actors in character.

9:48 PM  

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