For the latest in our series of author interviews, we spoke to Beatriz Pichel, Wellcome Trust Fellow in Medical Humanities, at the Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University. Dr Pichel works between the history of photography, the history of emotions, and the medical humanities; she is currently working on the relationship between psychological theories of the emotions and photography at then turn of the nineteenth century. Her new paper, ‘From Facial Expressions to Bodily Gestures: Passions, Photography and Movement in French 19th-Century Sciences‘ is available, open access, in the current issue of History of the Human Sciences. Dr Pichel spoke to HHS Web Editor, Des Fitzgerald.
Des Fitzgerald: The fundamental claim of your paper, as I read it, and if you’ll forgive a radical simplification, is that the history of the emotions is also the history of photographic technology. Why was it that attention to the emotions, particularly, became so associated with photographic technology? Or should we understand what’s going on here as only one story within a broader history of visual technology in the history of psychology?
Beatriz Pichel: In the second half of the nineteenth century, psychologists and physiologists started to measure emotions in terms of bodily changes (breath, blood pressure, pulse, etc.). But some of them nonetheless still used photographs to see the external changes in the body. This is interesting because, at this time, the imaging of emotion is the only use of photography that I have found in the group of psychologists that I’m looking at. So yes, I would suggest that there is a special connection between photography and emotions in the history of psychology – although, of course, the uses of photography in psychology cannot be reduced to this. But there is a further question, which relates to what we understand by the ‘history of emotions’ more broadly. In my article, I refer to the history of emotions as a discipline, and I claim that part of this history should be written so as to take into account photographic history. I focus on one example: the history of how psychology has understood emotional expressions.
DF: Though your paper is very focused on photographic technology, I also read it as a broader call for perhaps more attention to material cultures of experiment within the history of the emotions. Is this fair? Have these debates advanced as far as you would like?
BP: Yes, that is a fair reading. There are, of course, fantastic works that examine the practices and the material settings of the laboratory where emotions were ‘created’ – I’m thinking of Otniel Dror’s work (1999, 2011) for instance. This attention is fortunately common in both the history of medicine and the history of emotions nowadays. Perhaps my main claim here would be to turn to material and visual aspects of experiments at the same time. This is something that has been done in relation to the graphic method (an instrument which transcribed movement into linear traces on paper) but not so much in relation to photography. What I argue here is that we should consider images as objects embedded into material practices and cultures. This is actually the question that I would like to see not only in specialized debates in photography, but also in broader historical studies.
DF: We are used to accounts of photography eliciting emotion, and as having affective weight in that sense – but one of the central claims of your paper (as I understand it) is that photographic technology is also constitutive of how we understand emotions in the first place. Can you expand on this claim a bit: how hard an argument are you making here, and where would you locate it within studies of affect more generally?
BP: My strong claim in the article is that photographs – especially the ones produced in scientific studies – have participated in our understanding of what constitutes an emotional expression. First of all, because these studies used photography as a method of research. Photographs not only documented their theories but also provided essential information. Secondly, and most important for me, these photographs carried with them particular notions about emotional expressions: their location on the face, and their identification with the instant captured on the plate. It is the latter notion what is more relevant here. Charles Darwin, Duchenne de Boulogne and others described the process of producing an emotional expression, but they didn’t show this process: photographs displayed just one instant that summarized that process. This instant is not conceptualized as such in their books, but was nonetheless materialized in the photographs. These photographs were later appropriated by others such as the psychologist Georges Dumas and the physiologist Charles-Émile François-Franck, who also followed their photographic methods. By doing this, Dumas and François-Franck were implicitly assuming the principle of the instant: that the smile was that frozen moment that they were seeing in the photographs. This is especially important if we take into account that photography, as I discuss in the article, was able to introduce movement as an element in the analysis. However, this was a marginal practice, and most psychologists continued Duchenne’s and Darwin’s model (the focus on the face, and the use of instantaneous photography). The fact that we all assume that instantaneous photos of a smile are the only way to represent a smile tells us a lot about how pervasive the notion of the instant has been.
I think that the approach I develop here, based on research in the history of emotions, photographic history and the history of medicine, complements the work carried out in affect theory. My impression – as a non-specialist in the field-, is that affect theory is more helpful in the analysis of how photographs as visual objects can provoke emotions, or how we become attached to certain images. But it is difficult to apply it to epistemological questions such as why we understand emotions and emotional expressions in particular ways. Emotions are experienced but also categorised and understood, and therefore I think it is a good thing to have several theoretical approaches to examine each of these aspects.
DF: One of the really interesting stories, in this paper, is the story of the transition from an idea, first, that emotion is constituted by the fleeting expression in the face, versus, second, the idea that emotion is more of a bodily gesture, or a series of movements. Your interest, in the article, is in how this becomes a story about the move from the photograph to the chronophotograph. But I also wondered what else was going on here – conceptually, empirical, even culturally? And how can we disentangle technological from cultural and conceptual developments I our interpretation of this scene – if at all?
BP: I don’t think we can really disentangle the scientific and technological from other cultural developments and concerns, and that’s precisely the interesting point. The idea of the presence of the body in movement is something that permeates the French cultural scene at the end of the nineteenth century. As is widely known, hysterical patients became ‘muses’ or even role models for actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt. But there is also, as you said, something going on that is deeper than that. This is the moment when film was invented, but also when Loie Fuller started performing. Fuller is deemed one of the pioneers of modern dance. Her most famous dance, the Serpentine, was all about occupying the space with the movement of her body and clothing, using all sorts of technological props and theatrical lighting. She was an artist as well as an amateur scientist who was a close friend of Marie Curie and did research on lighting design. It’s a fascinating period to examine links between emerging technologies and emerging movements of the body.
DF: Was there any dialogue between the scientists who interest you, and more (for want of a better word) ‘creative’ or ‘fringe’ figures also exploring photography in this period? For example, its maybe an obvious and/or stupid comparison, but to me the images by Albert Londe, in particular, are strikingly redolent of the work of someone like Muybridge. It’s a crude dichotomy, but I guess my question is about two kinds of modernity that seem to getting mediated by photographic technologies in this period – scientific and artistic. What kind of dialogue is taking place across these twinned developments – if any?
BP: Definitely, there is a continuous dialogue between the sciences and arts, often mediated by photography. My Wellcome Trust funded project precisely tries to identify these links, particularly with theatre. Besides tracing shared ideas in the expression of emotions, we can also trace individuals who populated both worlds. Albert Londe is a very good example. He was a photographer, exactly like Muybridge. He had with no particular knowledge of medicine, but working at the Salpêtrière he learnt a great deal about nervous and physiological reactions. He later applied this knowledge, for instance, to his work photographing actors and his research on artificial lighting and the use of magnesium flash. He also presented his discoveries to the Société Française de la Photographie, so other photographers could learn from him. On the other hand, Charcot and Richer asked Londe to photograph artworks to demonstrate the history of hysteria, and psychologists like Alfred Binet wrote theatrical pieces. One of the things I like the most about this period are the blurred lines we find among disciplines, as well as between ‘science’ and ‘art’.
DF: Is there anything in this history that can help us to understand the visual technologies that seem to structure the science of emotion in the twenty-first century? I am thinking especially of the relationship between studies of emotion and the neurosciences in our own period.
I would say that there is still the same desire to see emotions, locating them in particular places: the face, the body, the brain. It seems that we need images to fix emotions, turning them into a controllable thing –which I presume is exactly the opposite of what we experience! What is common in both periods, furthermore, is that the final image, the one reproduced in books and articles, is taken as the ‘data’ that we have to analyse. This means that the particular technological choices made in the production of that image usually stay out of question. These choices are never neutral, and they determine the kind of results we can get. I think we need to develop more critical approaches that take into account image-making processes, technologies and practices.
‘From Facial Expressions to Bodily Gestures: Passions, Photography and Movement in French 19th-Century Sciences’, by Beatriz Pichel, is available open access in the February 2016 issue of History of the Human Sciences: http://hhs.sagepub.com/content/29/1/27.abstract