LRB letter: ‘The reaction economy’

The following letter appeared in the 16th March 2023 edition of the London Review of Books. It was my response to an article entitled The Reaction Economy by William Davies, in which Davies stated:

Charles Darwin’s 
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), seen by some as the origin of modern understandings of emotion, included extensive interpretation of emotional reactions on animals’ faces. Darwin was an enthusiastic photographer: the recent invention of the camera enabled him to capture and study fleeting facial expressions in a way that hadn’t previously been possible.

I have written about Darwin’s use of photography in his study of emotions in my own book Through Darwin’s Eyes (currently in progress). My letter was shortened slightly by the LRB editors. The image shown after the letter has been added by me, and did not appear in the LRB.

William Davies mentions Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the first English-language science book to be illustrated with photographs (LRB, 2 March). But Darwin did not take the photographs used in the book; nor did the photographic technology of the time allow the capture of fleeting facial expressions.

Darwin acquired the photographs for the book from three sources. Some were already on sale to the general public; he got permission to reproduce others from an earlier book by the French physiologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne; and he commissioned a number of original photographs, mainly from the London-based Swedish photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander. Duchenne’s images, captured with the help of the pioneer photographer Adrien Tournachon, include several of a toothless old man whose contorted facial expressions were obtained – and frozen long enough to photograph – by applying electrodes to different combinations of muscles in his face. Duchenne claimed the old man had a medical condition that rendered him impervious to pain. Rejlander, having struggled to coax his models into providing and holding realistic expressions, trimmed his magnificent moustache to make his own face easier to read, and provided Darwin with several selfies in hammy, melodramatic poses.

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Duchenne facial expressions image
Demonstration of the mechanics of facial expression. Duchenne and an assistant ‘faradise’ the mimetic muscles of ‘the Old Man’. (Source: Wikipedia)

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