The story of how Charles Darwin collected the specimens of human frowns, grimaces, smiles and sneers for his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals would make any naturalist's hair stand on end.
In 1869, 10 years after he published The Origin of Species, Darwin started gathering illustrations for the book, which argued that "all the chief expressions exhibited by man are the same throughout the world" and that the "most complex and fine shades of expression must all have had a gradual and natural origin."
In other words, disgust, disdain, joy and surprise look the same everywhere. And that's because many expressions have animal origins. For example, in a human snarl the lip lifts to bare the canine teeth, not because the teeth are about to be used, but because once upon a time they were.
The animal pictures were easy. Darwin picked wood engravings of dogs with hostile intentions, cats prepared to fight, angry swans and sulky chimpanzees. But apparently he felt that the human emotions demanded something more: the veracity of a photograph. After all, as Paul Ekman points out in the introduction to the new edition of the book, The Expression of the Emotions was effectively an answer to one of Darwin's harshest critics, Sir Charles Bell, who argued that some human expressions, designed by God, have no animal analogs.
Initially Darwin assumed that in collecting photographs of expressions he would simply use the same methods that he used to collect specimens in nature. He would plow through large numbers of pictures in the hope of finding exemplary ones. How wrong he was!
As Phillip Prodger states in an appendix to the new edition of The Expression of the Emotions, pictures of people with natural expressions were hard to come by. The photographic process was still fairly slow in 1869, and subjects had to sit motionless for a couple of moments while their portraits were taken. That, of course, was no way to capture fleeting emotions.
The first pictures Darwin liked were those by the French physiologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne, but they were far from ordinary shots of ordinary expressions. Duchenne, a clinician at La Salpetriere hospital, treated patients with epilepsy, insanity, palsy and paralysis and took pictures of them.
Duchenne, who produced a book called The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression with Adrien Tournachon, the brother of the portrait photographer Nadar, learned that he could simulate a number of expressions by stimulating different groups of muscles with an electrical current. "Instead of accelerating the photographic process to produce instantaneous images, as others had tried to do," Prodger writes, "Duchenne devised a system to freeze the activity of his subjects."
Duchenne, Prodger writes, found that the best subjects were people with numb faces, people who wouldn't make any extraneous movements when electrically stimulated. His prime subject was "an old toothless man, with a thin face." Duchenne said that he felt as if he were "working with a still irritable cadaver."
It shows. The man looks like a clown in a nightmare, with probes sticking into his waxy skin. Darwin wound up altering the pictures to remove some of the wrinkles and some of the electrical equipment. But he did use quite a few of them. The shots of horror, terror, agony, surprise and weeping are all from Duchenne.
The next photographer was James Crichton Browne, a psychiatrist, who kept sending Darwin pictures of his patients at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Yorkshire. Out of nearly 40 pictures, Darwin ended up using only one: a picture of a "lunatic woman" with electrified looking hair, which he turned into an etching. It is hard to see why in the world Darwin put this picture in the book. It has far less to do with emotional expression than with the lack of a hairdresser.
Next Darwin went to a man named George Charles Wallich, a naturalist turned photographer. As Prodger explains, Darwin commissioned Wallich to make a picture of "a screaming or crying baby," but he ended up getting just one picture from him, "a relatively conventional portrait of Wallich's daughter Beatrice smiling while wearing a fancy bonnet." Next stop for the crying baby was Adolph Diedrich Kindermann, in Hamburg, who had no shortage of unhappy infants. Darwin picked three _ one angry, two crying _ and moved on.
By 1871, Darwin was at the end of his tether, Prodger writes. Three years of work with four photographers, and he was nowhere near collecting the full range of emotions. Finally, though, he found the photographer to finish the job: Oscar Rejlander. It turns out that Rejlander was no naturalist when it came to photography. He was "known as a master of photographic manipulation," Prodger writes. And he did not stint on the manipulation for Darwin.
For example, the portrait called "Ginx's Baby," a crying infant, was no photograph at all. "Widely celebrated for its precocious spontaneity," Prodger writes, it is in fact a drawing made to look like a photograph. For other pictures, Rejlander posed for the shot himself or had his wife pose.
Rejlander got a far more natural effect than anyone else. Using a mixture of real and faked expressions, he ended up doing the pictures for placidity, depression, happiness, disgust, indignation, resignation and surprise.
Does it matter that prodding, coaching, posing, shocking and drawing were used to get these pictures?
Prodger concludes that although Darwin and Rejlander "have been widely criticized for the compromises they made," they really should be excused because of "the historical context in which the book was produced." He states: "In many ways, the publication of Expression marked the birth of empirical photography. It could not conform to rules about scientific photography, because it was part of the creation of those rules."