microexpressionists

Things that go bump in the light

On portraits and phrenology: Meet Phil, who's been hanging around the house all through the shutdown and has a lot on his mind


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


The photographs here are of Phil (no last name). He is, for all his insinuations to the contrary, an inanimate object. A phrenological head made of stone and resin, he is one of those iffy bits of bric-a-bracery that occasionally make it into my office and stay. He is both a piece of comic commentary on pseudoscience and the symbolic embodiment of a portrait photographer’s dream—a subject whose character is literally written on his face.

Phrenology, a crackpot theory of the mind from the early years of the 19th century, was the “brainchild” of a Viennese physician by the name of Franz Joseph Gall. It purported to deduce a person’s character from the size, shape, and location of various bumps on one’s head. Those bumps were read like Tarot cards.

The phrenologists of today are the microexpressionists. These are not diminutive painters of subjective exaggerations, but lab-coated, algorithm-addled analyzers of facial expressions. While phrenologists studied the bumps on one’s head, microexpressionists study the twitches, bunches, and tics of one’s facial muscles. 

(A gaggle of practitioners ran Leonardo’s Mona Lisa through one of their emotion-recognition analyzers. After assessing, among other things, the curvature of the lips and the crinkling around the eyes [variations from something called the average “neutral” expression], they concluded their subject—Mona—was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, and 2% angry.)

Although on firmer scientific ground than phrenology, microexpressionism as a critical tool is of no greater use to the portrait photographer. Studies suggest it might be helpful in detecting deception—in sorting out who has snatched your yogurt from the refrigerator at work—but it provides only the most cretinish counsel to anyone assessing a work of art. It would be like using a spectrometer to critique a sunset—factually accurate, perhaps, but essentially a desecration.

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Phil #1, 2021.

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