I recently looked again at a book that was published in the 1970s. Called The Face of Madness, it’s about Hugh W. Diamond, the founder of psychiatric photography in the 1850s. It’s fascinating to look at his very sensitive photos and read his equally sensitive descriptions of what he sees when he looks at them. The man was utterly well-meaning, and yet the new technology, the camera, gave him powers of description and diagnosis that we can’t help but question today, both because of advances in science and because of our escalating doubts about what we see, what the camera sees, and what’s really there.
At first sight the portrait seems only that of a plain face, almost vulgar. Examined more closely, it becomes affecting. It speaks not of despondency merely, but of some horrible vision that has arisen in the mind. The hands are not only joined, as in ordinary example of profound melancholy, but lapsed, almost convulsively, finger with finger, with a muscular energy the expression of which the engraver has most ably caught from the faithful photograph. By this wonderful art the muscles also of the right forearm are depicted as almost in immediate action, and the whole attitude of the patient shows the preponderating muscular strain existing on the same side of the body….
A further perusal of the face tells more than is revealed to a careless glance. The features are unrefined; but the wide and high head indicates intellectual qualities that cultivation might have improved; so as to control, perhaps a now dominating ideality. The copious and dishevelled hair, which we feel sure must be black mingled with grey, is parted with no care, but straggles in sympathy with the tortured brain….
And yet—if he hadn’t already known that she was “mad,” would he have made the same observations purely on the basis of sight? Do we see the same things as he did?
Even today we make assumptions about people in photographs. Sometimes we’re assisted in making them. I’ll never forget years ago when I occasionally marched with Communists in peace marches in San Francisco: Archie Brown, who was one of the most famous of the lot in the Bay Area was arrested for something to do with taxes. The photo in the newspaper was of a man I’d never seen, an Archie Brown who was rascally and dissolute instead of the gentleman I knew. At the very least he needed a shave and a good night’s sleep; at worst, he was capable of anything.
The late 19th and early 20th century were obsessed with the physical characteristics of people and their association with mental facility and character. I have a picture book from the period with frontal and profile views of people from around the world. All the characteristics people expected from the Spaniard’s fiery disposition to the African’s inferior intelligence are described in the accompanying paragraphs, as if they were apparent in the pictures.
It seems to me that historically enthusiasm about appearances and “types” of people coincided with the growing popularity of the camera. Appearances became more important than ever before. Racists found what seemed to them the perfect scientific tool to prove their theories. The camera demonstrated that one kind of person, one color of person, was better than another. The whole human race could be improved if we matched the right types of people. This kind of thinking culminated in Fascism’s elevation of the Aryan, and the deaths of millions in concentration camps. That, and other developments in science ended, or nearly ended, the thinking that linked people’s status and their physical features.
There can be do doubt that generalities about whole groups of people that arise from physical characteristics they share seldom have any basis in reality. But in the case of individuals—her soft smile and his raised eyebrow—perhaps there’s still a case to be made.