Fotograf Magazine

A History of Photographic Portraiture

The theme of the human face has played a crucial role in the history of photography. The first photographic portrait was made only three months after the medium was invented in August 1839. In a single year, a number of portrait studios sprang up all over Europe; these were able to provide, for considerably smaller sums, what previously only the rich had been able to afford. Soon the first theory of the portrait was elaborated: Marcus Aurelius Root based his ideas on the mystical writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and the anatomical studies of Charles Bell. In his theory, he stressed that a portrait was no good if it did not reveal the soul of the person photographed. The Bostonian daguerrotypist Albert Sands Southworth expanded this concept of the ‘interpretative’ portrait in 1871. He insisted that the character of the model should be immediately apparent when one first looked at the photograph, which was supposed to capture the most characteristic expression of the model. This concept of the photographic portrait was dominant throughout the entire 19th century and survived even into the 20th century. As late as 1939, Edward Weston claimed that the photograph should penetrate below the surface of its subject and determine the moment when the face shed its mask and the inner self was revealed. Some photographers – including Robert Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar the Younger and Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon – had artistic ambitions. They went beyond a mere likeness through pose, composition, dramatic lighting and the attempt to depict the soul. The real ‘photo-mania’ took hold in the mid-1850s when two French photographers, Dodero and André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, invented a portrait that was the size of a visiting card, where the name of the person was replaced by his or her photograph. Everyone wanted to have a portrait of himself, of his friends and of famous figures, whose likenesses were, for a long time, considered to instructional and inspiring.

As the ideas of Pliny the Elder, St Jerome, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and others indicate, our civilisation has believed from antiquity on that the human face expresses the entire truth of the soul or at least some of its aspects. In the 19th century, the attempt to reveal what was hidden behind the face led to the development of a number of fields, now considered to be pseudo-sciences: physiognomy (from the Greek fysis-nature and gnomon-interpretation, explaining human character on the basis of facial features); pathognomy (interpreting character on the basis of expressions of emotion); and phrenology (evaluations based on the shape of the skull). The third field was widespread in the 19th century when the capital cities expanded, plagued by unemployment, alcoholism and alienation. It was believed that people’s leanings towards criminal behaviour could be determined with the help of phrenology. With the rise of physiology and phrenology, ethnographic photographers in the colonies created a standard type of portrait (profile and en face), that was used in comparative race studies. The police also took advantage of photography immediately after its invention. In France in the 1870s, habitual offenders were increasingly common and as a result efforts were undertaken to document criminals more precisely. In 1879 Alphonse Bertillon established picture standards and a system of frontprofile photographs, which were supposed to be as faithful as possible to reality. The standardisation of equipment, of the photographic process, lighting and format in these images also contributed to the shift away from the aesthetic conventions of the nineteenth-century portrait. It is interesting to note that Bertillon paid particular attention to ears. (He claimed that in nature, no two ears were alike.) The fingerprint did not replace the ear until 1902; subsequently, the importance of photography for the justice system declined.

With the ascent of modernism, the concept of photography underwent a change. According to Charles Baudelaire, modern life is characterised by constant change and the word ‘modern’ is connected with the adjectives fleeting, inconstant and coincidental. Modern photography cast doubt on the ability of the camera to examine the inner character or emotional state of the model.

‘I had seen faces in photographs I might have found beautiful had I known even vaguely in what beauty was supposed to consist. And my father’s face, on his death-bolster, had seemed to hint at some form of aesthestic relevant to man. But the faces of the living, all grimace and flush, can they be described as objects?’ (Samuel Beckett, ‘First Love’(1946), in The Complete Short Prose: 1929–1989, New York: Grove Press, 1996, p. 38).

This epigraph, introducing Sobieszek’s study, summarises the entire contents. Beckett reflects on the beauty of the face in the photograph, the possible aesthetic quality of a dead face and the grimaces and excitement reflected in the faces of living people. These three types of faces – expressive, empty and fictitious – represent, in Sobieszek’s opinion, three stages in the development of the photographic portrait. Stages that are, at the same time, reflections of the changing cultural beliefs concerning human character.

The author analyses these three stages in three essays, each of which focuses on a single distinct figure in the field of photography. The essay concentrating on the traditional approach to the photographic portrait is titled, Gymnastics of the Soul: ‘The Clinical Aesthetics of Duchenne de Boulogne’. It refers to the nineteenth-century belief that the outer persona is a reflection of the inner. This position is manifest in the work of the French doctor Duchenne de Boulogne. In his book, The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy, or an Electro-physiological Analysis of the Expression of the Passions, Applicable in the Practice of the Visual Arts, he established how muscles in the human face, activated through the application of electric shocks, influenced expressions. Sobieszek analyses the modern approach to the photographic portrait in the essay entitled Tolerances of the Human Face: ‘The Affectless Surfaces of Andy Warhol’. He shows that the portraits of the modern era present only superficial, empty faces. The only subjectivity projected into them is the viewpoint of the photographer. The profile entitled Abstract Machines of Faciality: ‘The Dramaturgical Identities of Cindy Sherman’ focuses on postmodern photographic portraits, and in particular the theatrical aspects of Sherman’s photographs. According to some postmodern theorists, schizophrenia is the model of contemporary life; the ego is not only decentralised, but also infinitely multiplied.

The first essay is richly illustrated with photographs of six people, on whom Duchenne de Boulogne studied the palette of expressions caused by electric shocks from two electrodes. (He claimed that he chose an ugly man in order to show that some emotions could make even him morally beautiful. He avoided the mentally ill, who were of great interest to artists such as Goya, Géricault and Courbet, with the justification that he wanted to map out the conditions for beauty.) With his experiments, Duchenne de Boulogne followed on from tests that had been carried out on corpses at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. The collection of these photographs made up the third section of his work The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy. The collection followed a section devoted to general observations and positivist scientific research (the biological concept of emotional expression) as a supplement of particular use to artists. It was the first book about the expression of human emotions that used photographs as illustrations. He also challenged traditional physiognomy with the inclusion of several scenes of melodramatic acting. (At that time the most influential physiognomy of Johann Kaspar Lavater was based on the assumption that the face was an indicator of character; that is, that beauty was equivalent to virtue, most perfectly embodied, according to him, by the Apollo Belvedere.) Duchenne wanted to map out the grammar of facial expressions, which were in his opinion given by God. He identified precisely the muscles that triggered specific emotions (he identified thirteen primary ones) and he was convinced that he had discovered the unchanging laws governing facial expressions. (He even dared to ‘correct’ the expression of ancient sculptures – of Laocoön and Niobe – because he did not consider their expressions to be natural.) In order to avoid the grimace, which he considered to be the opposite of an expression, he always showed on one face a different emotion than on another. He thus demonstrated that some movements were not dependent on the mind; he unmasked that illusion. Duchenne showed his album to the Académie des beauxarts, which had held an annual competition for the representation of expressions since 1760. The states of the mind, however, remained impervious to the attempts of positivist science to map them, although artists from Degas to van Gogh were able to express them. From the nineties on, the human face was seen as the ground for a mutable game of forces rather than as a guide to the soul of its owner. The face and its expressions would never again have the sort of importance they had enjoyed in Duchenne’s era.

‘If you want to know everything about Andy Warhol then look at the surface: of my painting and films and me – and that’s me. Nothing more.’ (Andy Warhol in an interview with Gretchen Berg. ‘Andy: My True Story’. Los Angeles Free Press, 17. 3. 1967.)

Behind the doctrine of psychic immanence, according to which the mutable human ego could project the many forms of its mutable subjectivity into the phenomenal world, stood the ‘new psychology’ of Duchenne’s student Charcot. This psychology discovered that hallucinations were subject to the quirks of the imagination and had no basis in reality. Just as physiognomy was abandoned in medical science, art, beginning with Cubism, gave up portraying the inner personality. Twentieth-century portraits do not go beyond the surface, form or detail. This is best demonstrated in the portraits of stars like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe that Andy Warhol made from 1962 on. He took newspaper photographs and enlarged them to unprecedented dimensions; using the technique of serigraphy, he transferred these lifeless faces onto painted canvases. ‘Blank, bored, and consumately empty, the faces look out at us, opaque and insenate, lacking animation and communicating no mental or moral feeling.’ (p 91-92). The multiple copies of the photograph on the surface of the painting heighten the impression of the loss of expression. Photographs of celebrities were popular throughout the 19th century. The first photograph of this sort was of the actress Rachel, photographed by Charles Nïgre in 1853. Calling-card photographs were particularly popular. In Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, photographs depicted stars as static and iconic symbols of fame and a coveted status. These tended to be symbolic types, emphasising masculinity, feminine beauty, the themes of the femme fatale, tortured youth, and so on. Warhol presented the faces of celebrities as Campbell soup cans or bottles of Coca-Cola, as components of our consumer culture. He was not interested in their inner character or emotional state, but only in their public facades. He captured the iconic nature of fame. Sobieszek comes to the conclusion that Warhol’s portraits actually look like police photographs (irrespective of the fact that in 1964 Warhol created a collection of the ‘thirteen most wanted men’, which consisted of nine diptychs en face and in profile and four frontal pictures). Warhol’s works reflect a state of moral and emotional desensitisation. Not only did he depict dispassionately suicides, car accidents and atomic explosions in other paintings; even his portraits of stars constitute cold reflections on what will remain after the fifteen minutes of fame. (He made the Marilyn series after he learned about her death in 1962.) In the end, Warhol goes even further in the denial of subjectivity – to the universal portrait of the human head, to the series of skulls.

Cold, dispassionate realism had already appeared in Germany in the 1920s as the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit). Georg Grosz created unflattering portraits of bourgeois Berliners, whom he scorned just as they did the proletariat. Christian Schad ruled out emotions altogether. Photographers were mainly interested in the surface and light. Lászlo Moholy-Nagy photographed people as objects. ‘The only “soul” displayed in these images was that of the photographer, who had to express his own opinion of the sitter’s nature…’ ‘…The face had become only “raw material,” like paint or clay.’ (p. 133)

The face as the ground for the projection of mutable identities, both true and false, affected, authentic and invented, was the inspiration for another trend of twentieth-century portraiture. ‘The search for the absolut “self”, has been replaced by a constant scanning for new alternatives.(Jeffrey Deitch)… ‘Linearity, homogenity, and a single-point perspective hardly pertain any longer; single views onto a coherent and unified world have been shattered and replaced by a “multi-threading,” “memory addressing,” and fluid arrangement of unparallel, multitasking Windows.’ (p. 187). One finds theatrical aspects even in nineteenthcentury photography (Holland Day’s self-portrait as Christ dying) – and in particular in the ‘theatre of suffering’ of Jean-Martin Charcot. Every Tuesday, this French neurologist organised a get-together at which he presented his hysterical and epileptic patients having fits. The audience consisted of members of high society, scientists and doctors. In 1885-1886, Sigmund Freud was also among the visitors. As a student of Duchenne de Boulogne, Charcot wanted to map out systematically the gestures and expressions of his patients with the help of photography; he believed that the illnesses had been caused by traumas. One also finds the duplication of identity in the 19th century (the photograph by Oscar Gustav Rejlander, ‘Rejlander the artist presents Rejlander the volunteer’). Theatrical aspects were also manifest in the Surrealist photographs. In these one sees disguises, masks and mannequins; the method of solarisation is used, as well as the negative process, montage and multiple exposures. The most powerful Surrealist portrait is the 1922 ‘Doubleportrait of the Marquise Cassati’ by Man Ray, with its four eyes, created by a doubleexposure. It is more like a horrifying, immaterial nightmare than a woman, and her face seems to have no surface at all.

The theatricality of  illusion can be best exploited in the self-portrait. No artist has made a bigger career for himself or herself through selfpresentation in front of the camera than Cindy Sherman. She has presented herself as an anonymous actress of obscure films, as a young woman in ambivalent emotional states, as a porn-star taking a break, a model, a fairytale monster, a person with a deformed body. Her works are part of the artistic current focusing on the themes of racial and sexual identity and feminist criticism. Sherman abandons the concept of the ego and replaces it with the concepts of multiplicity and mutability. Sobieszek points out yet another shift that is manifest in twentieth-century art, most explicitly in the work of this photographer: the emphasis on the horizontal. Unlike the traditional conception, which emphasises verticality (linked with nobleness and a striving towards God), the horizontal appears in the work of Jackson Pollock, Robert Morris and Andy Warhol. In her cycle ‘Centerfolds’ (also called ‘Horizontals’), Sherman presents a woman in ordinary clothes lying on her stomach with an inscrutable expression on her face. She looks like a rape victim left alone with her pain. Rosalind Krauss interprets the black background of the photograph as something that seems to work against the forces of form and life, attacks, dissolves and quickly spreads. ‘Across the horizontal of contemporary culture, the face’s features are now scattered and strewn along an entropic terrain of the mind, soul, and psyche. Nothing coheres; even the landscape has become fractured and fragmented, and Cartesian space is eradicated. Body parts are disassembled, their scales shifted; perspectives are dissolved into myriad viewpoints, and language reduced to grunts and shrieks.’ (p. 262).

The performance artist Orlan also presents the theatre of suffering. She underwent plastic surgery seven times from 1990 to 1993 in order to acquire gradually the desired features: the chin of the Boticelli Venus, the nose of Gérard’s Psyche, the lips of Moreau’s Europe, the eyebrows of the Mona Lisa. During the surgery (recorded on video), the operating room was decorated like a stage, the surgeons wore clothes by Issey Miyako and Paco Rabann. As if through these acts Orlan was referring back to Artaud’s concept of ‘the body without organs’ and, like Sherman, confirming that the essence of the individual is his or her appearance.

In the concluding chapter, the author reflects on how the human expression was aestheticised, manipulated and broken up with the help of photography, over the century and a half since the medium was invented. After the era of positivism, the virus of subjectivity led to the multiplicity and mutability of facial expressions, which one has encountered since then in life and in art. He also mentions, however, the ideas of the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, who argued that the face was a metaphor, a pre-linguistic primordial poem, behind which the mark of God lingered. To look into the face of another was, according to Levinas, the act of becoming oneself and the other. Sobieszek finishes with the conclusion that the subject cannot be entirely alone – he or she is always dependent on others. The bond of inter-subjectivity joins us together.

The study includes more than 150 reproductions of photographs by Diane Arbus, Julie Margaret Cameron, Edward Curtis, Salvador Dali, Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibowitz, Bruce Nauman, Orlan, William Parker, Irving Penn, Lukas Samaras, Edward Weston and many others. The most interesting thing about the author’s approach is that he does not treat the theme of the face only in ‘art’ photographs, but across the entire spectrum of photographic images.

Dagmar Čujanová

#1 Face


Out of stock