Duchenne de Boulogne, the Pioneer of Medical Photography

 

Mug Shot

Where did photography in science and medicine originate? Supriya Joshi takes a look at the life of Duchenne de Boulogne, and gets her answer.

“It is only photography, as truthful as a mirror, which could attain such desirable perfection.”

Science and medicine have come a long way. From indigenous herbs to modern amenities, there has been a world of change that we have seen through time. Photography has been a silent partner to this change. It has helped to catalogue, understand and discover. But do you know who pioneered its usage in research? It was French neurologist, Guillaume-Benjamin- Amand Duchenne… or as he was known amongst his peers, Duchenne de Boulogne.

Duchenne was convinced that human expressions were the gateway to the soul of man. All images from Wikimedia Commons

Duchenne was convinced that human expressions were the gateway to the soul of man. Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne All images from Wikimedia Commons

Realising the Potential
When photography began in the 1800s, professionals from different fields were trying to figure out how they could use it to their advantage. In fact, the first medical photograph was made in 1844, when Léon Foucault made daguerreotypes of human blood corpuscles. But apart from this, most medical practitioners were unsure about photography being the ideal means of illustration. They preferred drawing, as they believed that finer details can be rendered throughsketches. But this is where de Boulogne differed from the rest… he felt that photography had the power to show instantaneous human responses, something that drawing could barely keep pace with.

 Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Duchenne believed that only photography could render the ‘truth’ of his experiments effectively, as the subject’s expressions were too fleeting to be drawn or painted.

 Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Experiments—Medical and Photographic
Duchenne was researching the effect that electric simulation would have on facial muscles and features. He began his work in 1852 with five volunteers, but the person central to all his experiments was a former shoemaker. This gentleman is seen in most of de Boulogne’s images, making, what look like, silly faces. Of course, the actual story behind his expressions involves electrodes that were giving his facial muscles slight electric shocks. Duchenne himself described the man as ‘old and ugly’. Moreover, the shoemaker suffered from slight facial numbness, so he did not feel the extent of the pain as much. Additionally, his wrinkled skin responded well to the effects of the current, providing clear delineation of facial expressions.

Le Mécanisme de laPhysionomie Humaine is a journal of medical photographs made by Duchenne.

Le Mécanisme de laPhysionomie Humaine is a journal of medical photographs made by Duchenne.

Jules Talrich, a young anatomy student, volunteered to be part of Duchenne’s experiments. He was also able to mime expressions without the need for an induction current.  Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Jules Talrich, a young anatomy student, volunteered to be part of Duchenne’s experiments. He was also able to mime expressions without the need for an induction current. Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

 

 “To research,” when asked about what he most liked to do.

Creating the Image
Duchenne used the wet-collodion process. He explained the method of exposure as follows, “The light was so placed that the creases stimulated by the electric impulse would be defined as clearly as possible. Before placing the camera, the photographer, with the help of the assistant, attempted to find a pose that would illustrate the subject in sharp detail.”

On Finding Inspiration
Another reason why de Boulogne turned to photography was because of his close relationship with French photographer Adrien Tournachon. Incidentally, Tournachon happened to be legendary Nadar’s younger brother. He not only helped de Boulogne in terms of photographic technicalities, but also meant that Duchenne was inspired by the masterful Nadar’s style of lighting. In this, Duchenne was unique. He was a scientist who believed that medical photography needed to be aesthetic and artistic as well— not just be a mere documentation.

Duchenne borrowed heavily from the established photographer Nadar’s style of composition and lighting for his images.

Duchenne borrowed heavily from the established photographer Nadar’s style of composition and lighting for his images. Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Leaving a Legacy
His findings and photos, published in a journal called Mecanisme de la physionomie Humaine, are considered pathbreaking today. Ironically though, the book did not get any audience back then. In 1872, Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, carried illustrations based on Duchenne’s photos. In the introduction to his book, Darwin noted that the work had not been given the due respect that it deserved.

Duchenne consulted several photographers for his work, including Gustave Le Gray, Alphonse Poitevin and Louis Pierson.  Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Duchenne consulted several photographers for his work, including Gustave Le Gray, Alphonse Poitevin and Louis Pierson. Photograph/ Duchenne de Boulogne

Duchenne’s contribution to the field is unparalleled, not just in terms of medical photography, but in also educating people from other sciences, as to how useful photography can be, from a research point of view. Most importantly, his work created a meeting point of science and art.

Tags: Adrien Tournachon, Duchenne de Boulogne, facial expressions, French neurologist, Guillaume-Benjamin- Amand Duchenne, july 2013, Léon Foucault, Mecanisme de la physionomie Humaine, Supriya Joshi