September 17: Is it true in photography that the face bears the imprint of the psyche?
This date is significant in photography, especially as it marks the death of Henry Fox Talbot in 1877, to whom we owe the invention of the multiplicable photo-image, and also that of Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne in 1875.
The French physician (*1806) used photography, preferring its factuality over other media, first employing the brother of Nadar, Adrien Tournachon (1825–1903), then teaching himself the art, in order to document his experiments in the relatively new science of neurophysiology, of which he was the founder in France, and its exploration of human expression.
Through electrical stimulus of muscles of volunteers he was able simulate grimaces across a spectrum through horror, through pain, suspicion, flirtation, and ecstasy, publishing them in 1862 in three formats: two octavo editions and one quarto edition, titled Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, ou analyse électrophysiologique des passions, thus exploiting a later form of Talbot’s invention to disseminate his findings. The first editions contained tipped-in albumen prints, and in the 1870s were reproduced photomechanically.
I’d like to think around this idea of facial expression in photography by looking at these faces each cropped from images by photographers with the capacity to communicate real passion and to inspire empathy:
That is a quality of the work of two photographers born on this date; Ata Kandó (*1913 Etelka Görög) who died only 3 days ago, just short of the extraordinary age of 104; and photojournalist Hilmar Pabel (1910–2000).
Two of their photographs reveal their sensitivity to human facial expression:
Pabel made this picture on assignment for Stern covering the 21 August 1968 invasion of Prague by troops of the Warsaw Pact to put an end to the Prague Spring uprising which began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ). His ‘socialism with a human face’ was launched in a program of liberalisations with freedom of the press and freedom of speech, promoting trade in consumer goods for economic development and the possibility of a multiparty government. For the Czechs he embodied great hopes. The Soviet Union, fearing that democratic reforms threatened the balance of power in Eastern Europe, killed dozens and arrested several Czechoslovakian leaders.
The photograph that the woman holds forth pleadingly to a parade of invading forces represents the shattered hopes of most Czechs, of the men around her who look about in confusion and dread. It shows Alexander Dubček shaking hands with national military hero Ludvík Svoboda who, by influencing Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, had succeeded the despised Antonín Novotný as President in March that year and who supported the reforms. Though Dubček asked his people not to resist the invasion, many made efforts to confuse the Soviet forces by destroying road signs (except for those indicating the way to Moscow) and many small villages renamed themselves “Dubcek” or “Svoboda”.
The tilted frame of Pabel’s photograph and the steep perspective interrupted by a cloud of smoke directs attention to the woman’s stricken face, and who can help but feel for the subjects?
Ata Kandó had been a child portrait photographer before the war and her empathy with children is a thread that can be followed throughout her career.
The image at left is a simple statement in contrast with Pabel’s more complex composition and it concentrates our attention on an ambiguous expression on the girl’s face, her lips set against an upwelling of fear, her eyes pleading and hopeful.
Space is left for only three signs of context; the wintry twigs, the wind that tugs at her hair and hints at her movement to the left, and the presence of an adult body against which the girl shelters.
In both cases then, as I have described these images, it is not only the facial expression that injects the emotional content and that taps our empathy, but in addition is their context contained in the frame. To go back to the cropped faces that is quite clear, as there is now less ambiguity in our interpretation of the emotions expressed.
Kandó’s photograph comes from an untitled book, known as the “Red Book Without a Title” that was the result of a project with Violette Cornelius (1919–1998) as a response to the Russian invasion of Hungary, her native country (she was born in Budapest), in 1956. They traveled to the Austrian-Hungarian border to document the refugees, especially the younger ones, who were streaming across.
Their book was widely distributed by De Bezige Bij in 1956 and proceeds were used to provide assistance to the displaced Hungarians in the Netherlands. Nederlands fotomuseum (which recently concluded a major Kandó retrospective) and Veenman Publishers reprinted this book in 2006 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. Its only text, printed in many languages, is a folk-song from the time of Rakoczi (18th century), played for her, records Kandó, by this gypsy boy of seven or eight on his violin.
The flower to whom he plays is the stock, Hungarian national symbol of fragility and preciousness:
Flower of my country,
your stem has been crushed
and my sorrow finds no relief.
A storm has swept over my
Land that I love,
In an interview with The Guardian 12 January this year, she said of the book;
I wanted to capture the plight of those who had suffered the 1956 Hungarian revolution, especially the children. I felt an affinity with people who had lost their country, since I myself had been a refugee. My husband and I were in the communist resistance during the second world war, but when the Russians took over Hungary we did not agree with their approach. When the Red Army liberated us from the Nazis, the Hungarian people said : “We are going from one trash can into another.”
Her life has certainly been peripatetic. Studying drawing at the Sándor Bortnyik private academy, she met and married painter Gyula Kandó in 1931, moving to Paris, but they returned penniless to Budapest in 1935. Switching to photography, Kandó trained with Klára Wachter, Mariann Reismann and József Pécsi then completed an apprenticeship with Ferenc Haár, returning to Paris in 1938
In 1941, Kandó had a son, Tamás, and two years later gave birth to twin daughters, Júlia and Magdolna. Kandó’s husband was not Jewish and she was protected from deportation or other anti-semitic actions by the Aryan Spouse Act of Hungary, but after the war when she separated from her husband she “lived alone in western Europe as a kind of economic refugee with three children.”
Kandó married and lived in Paris in the mid-50s with her three children and the younger Ed van der Elsken (equally extraordinary as a photographer of people), whom she’d met in the Magnum darkrooms where she printed for Capa and Cartier-Bresson. In their tiny flat they processed and printed their own photographs. The red book was produced after they had moved to Amsterdam and divorced, leaving her once again a single parent.
Despite being a hand-to-mouth freelancer, she determined to give her children holidays and they would hitchhike while she photographed for two extraordinary photo-romans, no doubt inspired by Van der Elsken’s own very successful Love on the Left Bank, published in 1956. They were Droom in het woud (Dream in the forest), published in 1957, made in Switzerland and Austria with a text by her fourteen-year-old son, Tamás; and Kalypso & Nausikaä (the latter who rescues Homer’s Odysseus, the other who entraps him), for which her children were photographed over 1954/5 amongst the Greek ruins in Paestum in Italy.
Due to the adverse reception given to the earlier Droom in het woud by some Dutch booksellers who found it too erotic, the finished dummy of the lyrically photographed Kalypso & Nausikaä was shelved until finally released in 2004 by De Verbeelding publishers.
Kandó’s extraordinary career and further travels continued as a member of Magnum, going twice to the Amazon to document ethnic communities, later working as a fashion photographer in Munich, then returning to documentary work with National Geographic. Even in her nineties Kandó produced two books, including The Living Other: A Project by Ata Kando, Diana Blok and Sacha de Boer (Veenman).
Hilmar Pabel’s career is complicated by his production of propaganda for the National Socialists in Germany during the war. His imagery of the removal of Jews from the ghetto of Lublin are straightforward documentation but were published by Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung with anti-semitic captions.
Pabel served a jail term after the war for pro-Nazi publicity activities. However, his viewpoint even in Lublin is humane, representing the victims’ faces rather than those of the soldiers that he accompanied, as are his series of photographs made during the siege of Berlin, where once again he concentrates on the faces of the foolhardy though determinedly brave Volkssturm resistance formed in the last days of the war of elderly and youthful Germans. From 1945 he redeemed himself by co-initiating a search for children separated from families with the Bavarian Red Cross, photographing more than 2000 children to find their parents or relatives.
Little has been written in English about Pabel’s work and it has been ‘monetised’ from public collections by opportunists Getty Images and Alamy. It is therefore very difficult to obtain examples for this post, however thumbnails and watermarked versions are available more fairly at bpk-Bildagentur, an institution of Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Even amongst these few however, his capacity to make the human face the viewer’s focus in each, is evident.
Pabel worked for the illustrated magazine Quick, for which he traveled to the GDR, Nepal, Indonesia, Japan, China, Taiwan, numerous African countries, the USSR and the USA and also Paris Match and Life.
He received the Cultural Prize of the German Society for Photography in 1961, then joined Stern (a publication also compromised by its association with Nazism; its founder was Henri Nannen (1913–1996) a wartime Nazi propagandist) to photograph in Vietnam, producing powerful pro-American essays including ‘Little Orchid’ (1964) and ‘Thuan May Live Again’ (1968) as well as documenting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
It was during that period, in 1968 that he made the image of the Hué Mother, above. In this case, though the expressions are powerful, isn’t it only with the information in the caption that we are able to interpret them as representing relief and humble gratitude?
That the face is the window to the psyche is a principle worth applying in a still-image, audio-free medium, one borne out in emerging software which measures pain from facial expressions.
Of their 2015 study, researcher Jeannie Huang, a professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and a gastroenterologist at Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego, says:
The current gold standard for measuring pain is self-reporting (using a scale of 1–10), but in pediatrics there is a limited population of kids who can answer that question in a meaningful way. In this study, we developed and tested a new instrument, which allowed us to automatically assess pain in children in a clinical setting. We believe this technology, which enables continuous pain monitoring, can lead to better and more timely pain management
The software prototype utilised data collected via prior software (Computer Expression Recognition Toolbox) by study co-author Marian Bartlett, at UC San Diego’s Institute for Neural Computation, which utilises computer vision techniques to analyse facial expressions based on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS).
Self-reported pain scores are unreliable and a system of objectively measuring pain levels in the medical practitioner’s consulting room has been recently reported by Dianbo Liu, who created AI software with his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Liu and his team trained an algorithm on videos of people with verified shoulder pain, asked to rate their pain levels, and recording their wincing and grimacing, resulting in an algorithm that can use subtle differences in facial expressions to inform a guess about how a given person is feeling. “Certain parts of the face are particularly revealing,” says Liu, “Large amounts of movement around the nose and mouth tended to suggest higher self-reported pain scores. Liu aims to make an app that doctors could have on their smartphones.
These are scientific developments that have had their nascence in the early days of photography when Charles Darwin used Duchenne de Boulogne’s photography of his experiments in neurology in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals of 1872.
Science may still learn from photographers such as Kandó and Pabel about the role of context in interpreting expression.