Academic journal article About Performance

Performing Laughter: Duchenne's Smile in the Light of Photographic Practice

Academic journal article About Performance

Performing Laughter: Duchenne's Smile in the Light of Photographic Practice

Article excerpt

Exporrigere Frontem

(lat.) to unwrinkle the brows, be cheerful or merry

(Darwin 1955, p.211)

Imagine for a moment what happens when portraiture goes beyond individual likeness, when it is not just a reflection of (or upon) a sitter's identity. Consider what we are faced with when a laughing face does not actually demonstrate joy but something else. Also, reflect on what takes place when photography does not function as an indexical record. Three parallel figures of thought. Where are they leading us? Within the discourse of ajournai about performance this essay introduces the photographic image as a possibility to rethink the photograph not as the 'record' of a performance, but rather as a performance in itself. The triangular relationship between performer, spectator and stage will hereby be mirrored in the association of model, viewer and image in photographic portraiture - establishing a triangular process of signification involving an imaginary sitter, the photographic sign and the interpretation of the respective viewer.

1. The laughter of photographic portraiture

Faced with a portrait without recognizing the depicted person - unable to ask Who, When, Where, What, and Why ? - we have lost the classic criteria of meaning, finding it hard to judge whether the image is a 'good likeness' or not. In this case, when a portrait has lost the equation with the sitter as its main signification, we are left with a better or worse executed picture of someone - model or sitter. Then, if we do not choose the biographical route searching for this person's history or identity, what is the value of this picture? Lost for reference we start applying Knowledge? Taste? Clichés? Memory? We start 'reading' in (or into) the photographed face - the actual image has become more important than its imitation of a reality to which we have no access.

What is more, what if I read this photograph difieren dy from how you perceive it? Our experience with the image is bound to be diverse: just as any act of interpretation, it involves a rather subjective process, more often than not an unverifiable one. We cannot be sure, for instance, that we both perceive the same shades ofredness framing a mouth - once expressed in language, comparing our descriptions, we might not be speaking about the same appearances at all. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote: "If someone sees a smile and does not know it for a smile, does not understand it as such, does he see it differently from someone who understands it?" (1986, 198)

A similar thing happens with laughter: looking at the photograph of a laughing face, it is hard to tell what we are actually faced with.1 In opposition to smiling, laughter is mostly characterized by a shaking and gaping mouth revealing teeth - but often the freeze frame of this open mouth can just as well illustrate pain or despair. The image rarely resembles our memory of the actual bodily experience of laughter. It does not fit our imagination, our own mental image of the laughing act.

Like Charles Darwin, one generally assumes that "in joy the face expands, in grief it lengthens". (1955, 211) But, due to the nature of the still image, we cannot tell if the depicted expression is part of an 'inhaling' or an 'exhaling' process, like in sobbing with tears and gurgling with pleasure. As Sándor Ferenczi once put it: "Laughter is an automatic intoxication with C02 (tissue suffocation). Weeping is an automatic inhalation of 02" (1955, 179). Still, pictorially speaking, laughter - usually thought to be part of the "exhilarating emotions" - in many ways is analogous to other, "depressing passions" such as weeping (Bell in Darwin 1955, 211). Their mysterious similarity has not only intrigued Darwin. As Joshua Reynolds once put it: "It is curious to observe, and it is certainly true, that the extremes of contrary passions are, with very little variation, expressed by the same action" (Darwin 1955, 206). Already Leon Battista Alberti, giving great importance to accurate observation and recording of the natural world, admitted: "Who, unless he has tried, would believe it was such a difficult thing, when you want to represent laughing faces, to avoid them appearing tearful rather than happy" (Sturgis 1998, 67). …

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