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Portraying Einstein
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In contemporary Western societies Einstein is above all an image. His face, although usually represented in different forms and in a vast variety of media, is always recognized. Everything looking like a face with wild hair and an abundant moustache remind us of him. In a centenary survey of Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis, historian of science and Einstein’s biographer Peter Galison writes that “the Einstein we encounter in daily life is one produced by millions of Web sites,” complaining that “indeed, over the decades, even Einstein’s countenance has become something other than a face, as it morphed into a multinational logo.”[source] Galison’s disapproval of this visual phenomenon has to do with the negative impact it has had on the more academic study of Einstein’s thought, whether concerning his specific contribution to physics or to culture in general: “His writings and actions lose all reference.” In spite of this warning, in this section I will try to extract from Einstein’s images information that could be of value to the history of science. On the other hand, that Galison compares Einstein to a logo (a design that by definition has to be immediately identifiable) is very interesting; this fact is at the core of my own discussion. But, why should we be interested in Einstein’s portraits?

The human face has always been an important subject matter for art, at least since the Renaissance, and skilled artists have tirelessly argued that they are able to portray the different traits of the human soul in painting it. In nineteenth-century Europe this idea was very popular, and not only among those professional artists who made a living doing portraits, but among the populace and the educated circles as well.

Physiognomy, the practice of recognizing the inner character through facial features, was nothing more than a set of disparate prejudices and careless observations that in the eighteenth century Johann Kaspar Lavater tried to promote as true science. The likeness to the subject that photography enabled made these ideas harder to eradicate. It was generally thought that in the same way as a landscape picture reproduced the world exactly as it was — “the world out there” — a photographic portrait would inevitably capture the character and personality of the sitter: intelligence, devotion, innocence, courage, trustworthiness, culpability, madness, arrogance, and so forth. By the time photography gained popularity, the face was seen as the mirror to the soul. A weaker proposal of physiognomy stated that the human face, and therefore the photograph of it, documented only the past experiences of the sitter, that is, the face reflected the formed personality rather than the innate soul. This version of physiognomy is still very popular among Westerners. Today, as was the case one hundred years ago when August Sander used it to advertise his services, the following words retain their full validity: photographic portraiture attempts “to retain all the characteristic features which circumstance, life and times have stamped upon the face. Thus I can offer to produce expressive, characteristic likenesses that completely represent the nature of the subject.”[source] The reason behind this common practice of associating facial features with personality traits is that the human face was filling the visual space of Western societies in an unprecedented manner and, subsequently, people found it important to know how to read it.

That photographic portraiture has radically changed, sometimes unintentionally and other times purposefully, the way we see and live in the world, is not for discussion. The pioneering neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne used the camera as early as 1855 to capture the expressions induced on his patients’ faces when subjected to apposite electrical currents. The photographic portraits made by Nadar of the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt were very popular at the time and contributed to make of the actress a living icon not only in Europe but in America as well. In 1971 the photographs of the Communards were used by Versailles to identify and then execute many of its leaders. Later, the French Third Republic benefited from the pictures taken by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri showing the dead bodies of the insurrectionists; they were used as a political instrument to terrorize all those eager for social reforms. Americans first became highly aware of child labour seeing Lewis Hine’s portraits picturing hundreds of innocent faces working in the mills or spending their lives on the streets. The history of the Great Depression in America can be told in many ways, but Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange is so expressive that even someone with only a vague idea of what the Great Depression was hardly needs a written or oral explanation. It is common opinion that the general anxiety experienced by Westerners at the rise of the nuclear era also has a face, an author, and a medium: Albert Einstein; Philippe Halsman; Time magazine. The above examples suggest that there is barely a human circumstance or emotion that has not been captured by photographic portraiture. One hundred and eighty years after the invention of photography and its extensive use to reproducing the human face, contemporary Western population is used to reading, as never before in history, these images. But, when did all this begin? How did we get used to reading portraits? Since when and why do we use photographic portraits as a shorthand reference to a past time or event? Why are they so important in the present time? Under which specific circumstances did all this happen? Visual culture matters, and we cannot understand Einstein’s importance to culture, and then to science (remember the in-out-in process of essay 1), without studying the scopic regimes which have given him the rank of visual icon. Taking a closer look at the history and theory of portraiture will help.

Painting portraits were normally commissioned by wealthy people and done by qualified artists. This personal contact between the commissioner and the artist entailed that a number of portraitists gained a privileged position in courts and noble families. However, given that there were too few commissioners and the practice was time-consuming and usually not well remunerated, many painters had to struggle for survival. They found some relief making small portraits, usually sold at affordable prices, nonetheless, the genre never became popular; potential customers favoured the standard landscape. As a consequence, portraits were as a rule exhibited in private residences. There, they were accessible only to a select group of people: monarchs, noblemen, lesser nobility, landowners, and the clergy. The visual experience of painting portraits was limited to the few – excepting other representations such as coins, public statues, and, of course, religious motifs. It is not surprising then that with the invention of photography and its fast technical development and low cost, in addition to the rapid acceptance that followed, many painters shifted to this. From the point of view of the portrait artist wanting to make a profitable business in the artistic milieu, the new invention had two vital advantages: it only required a short period of training in order to learn the basics of its utilization, and the necessary investment to start the new business was not so high. These were the basic motivations that brought many painters to photography. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, small portraiture was the first victim of photography.[source] Small portraits, also called miniatures, never were very popular, but with the introduction of photography the genre disappeared completely. In fact, a photographic portrait was so cheap and realistic that everybody wanted to have their own; whether to display it at home or to give it to friends. Portraiture was no longer exclusive to those with wealth and status; now it was within everyone’s reach. The representation of the human face was firmly penetrating the visual culture of Western societies.

By the mid-forties of the nineteenth century many portrait painters had converted to photography. The development of photography was incredibly fast: new innovations gave rise to greater popularity, and, in turn, its fast acceptance encouraged more advances. In addition, new reproduction techniques meant cheaper pictures, and cheaper pictures meant a rise in popularity. These three factors: technological innovations, lower costs, and growing popularity, contributed to the highest degree to the success of photography. By the second half of the nineteenth century, photographic portraits were so cheap that everyone could have a portrait of themselves, or of their loved ones. On an entrepreneurial side, there were some progressions that are worth mentioning. In Paris, Louis Dodero had the idea of including portrait photographs in visiting cards, identity cards, passports, and other personal documents. More or less at the same time, the mid-fifties, Disdéri introduced the “carte de visite” (not the business card!) and invented a technique that would reproduce eight pictures at once. The impact of portrait photography had already been very important, but with these innovations Disdéri engendered a real cultural revolution and a great business. The growth of the photography business was unbelievable. For example, Disdéri opened several studios around the continent, including Paris, London and Madrid, becoming the richest photographer in Europe. Photographs of the type “carte de visite” were popularized in England by John Jabez Edwin Mayall (the same man who took the first photograph of Queen Victoria in 1860), who reproduced in his studios around the country more than 300 million of these photos every year. In England the number of photographic studios tripled only in the second half of the fifties. The same phenomenon took place almost simultaneously in the rest of Europe and in the United States. By the end of the sixties, the “carte de visite” type portrait was substituted by the 14 x 10 cm portrait. According to Walter Benjamin, with the introduction of this new format, a new era of photography was consolidated, the era where photo albums were obsessively filled with photographic portraits.

Prior to photography, wealthy people and public personalities would to commission painting portraits in order to show, and increase, their status. In the same way, with the advent of photography and its widespread popularity, the European aristocracy and elite employed it to promote themselves. To be a public figure meant to be recognizable. This was well understood by Napoleon III when in May 1959 he interrupted his march to Italy to go to Disdéri’s studio in Paris. Soon after this, Napoleon III was known by everyone in France, that is, he was visually identifiable, and Disdéri became the richest and most famous photographer in Europe. The details of this story, told by Nadar, have not been proved, however, it helps to illustrate the power photography had to promote personal visibility. But, Napoleon III did much more than that. Aspiring to spread his image, and power, within and beyond the borders of the Empire, he hired Gustave Le Gray, a painter who had converted to photography, as the official photographer of the imperial family. This new relationship between visibility, recognition, and photography was stressed by Alexandre Dumas. He claimed that when he was in Italy and during his wandering around Europe he witnessed how a photograph of Giuseppe Garibaldi taken by Le Gray in 1960 had converted the Italian patriot into a famous figure in the whole continent and an icon in his native country. Other public figures, not directly involved in politics, also began to be immortalized by means of the camera rather than by the brush. The portrait of Oscar Wilde by the American photographer Napoleon Sarony (1882), Charles Darwin by the talented Julia Margaret Cameron (1968), Victor Hugo by the versatile Nadar (1884), and Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat (1878), are only a few examples of nineteenth-century influential portraits. But this is only a tiny sample; the circulation of celebrities’ portraits was an extremely popular fad at the time.

I hope this brief discussion suffices to persuade the reader that the nineteenth-century Western population experienced an unprecedented phenomenon: human faces were everywhere, and not only in private spaces as was always the case (but certainly to a lesser extent), but in public spaces too. Before the invention of photography, portraits were kept in private residences or were not accessible to the masses; after, portraiture became a subject of public interest. Exposure to this high number of images brought about by photography, and illustrated publications, opened a new unexpected world to Western visual culture: a world of uncountable faces. There was then the problem of recognizing all these faces. How could someone identify the faces encountered every day? The answer seems quite simple: by remembering the most prominent features. But, it is clear that there are many more faces than the possible combinations that can be made with the main facial features. And, after all, what is a main feature? This is not a simple question and I will try to answer it only for Einstein’s case.

It is important to mention that the discussion thus far does not intend to imply that facial perception and recognition is a nineteenth-century phenomenon that originated with photography – of course not. The face has been long a key aspect in social interaction. With the face we are able to communicate to others so much information, including emotions and feelings. It would be useless to argue that face perception is a new experience and practice. Moreover, the features of the face are so complex that neither portrait painting nor photography capture all its details. However, how we see faces and represent them is historically dependent. This is what I want to show in Einstein’s case. To be brief, my intention is to determine the specific context in which Einstein arose as a public figure and in which his image was consolidated. For the comparative study that follows, examining how people imagined Einstein at different times, we will first assume that Einstein at present is characterized by two main features: white shaggy hair and moustache. This premise will be supported in the course of the presentation.

Portraits can take different forms. For example, painting, photography, and sculpture are all common ways of representing the human face. Caricature is another form of portraiture. Lenn Redman, a contemporary caricaturist and author, defines it as “an exaggerated likeness of a person made by emphasizing all of the features that make that person different from everyone else.”[source] In order to make the portrayed person recognisable, the caricaturist must assume that most people hold the same idea of which facial features are most relevant in that person. As we will see, this dialogue between the portraitist and the audience is not without difficulties. Our study of Einstein’s portraits will start with an old caricature drawn at the time when his visual recognition was not yet firmly established. The caricature will help us to find out how Einstein was imagined during his first public appearances. The period in question is the twenties, the time when he became a celebrity and a visual reference. Certainly, a single caricature cannot pretend to be a thorough study of the many portraits that were made of Einstein during this period. However, I have chosen it because I find that it is representative of the majority of Einstein’s portraits at that time. The caricature I am talking about is shown in Figure 5.

5. Caricature published in a Japanese newspaper, 1926. Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, cover, 1922.

This caricature was done by the famous cartoonist Ippei Okamoto. By the time it was published Okamoto was one of the best-known political cartoonists in Japan, designing for Asahi, the oldest and amongst the largest newspapers of the country. Years before, in 1922, Okamoto had met Einstein personally and accompanied him and his wife Elsa during his visit to Japan. On that occasion he did some portraits of the scientist. The portrait in Figure 5 originally accompanied an article about Einstein and, as usual, a popular account of his theory. At first glance it seems that the caricature has been inspired by a photograph of Einstein which had appeared on the cover of Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung four years earlier. However, it does not really matter whether Okamoto did or did not use the cover of BIZ as a model for his caricature; the fact is that the drawing, as well as the photograph, made clear which features of Einstein’s face were the most relevant. Einstein is shown from the side with curly and untidy hair, a medium sized forehead, drooping eyebrows and tiny eyes, a big nose (a “Gedanken-Reservoir” in Einstein’s words), an ordinary sized shaped moustache, a smoking pipe, and a small chin.

In this caricature Okamoto seems to be aware of portraying Einstein “as he looks,” that is, in likeness, rather than to highlighting the symbolic meanings of the features depicted. Without doubt this has to do with the fact that at that time (and in Japan) Einstein was not yet the easily identifiable figure, and cultural icon, he later became. In fact, Einstein would have been unrecognizable if Okamoto had exaggerated all the features of his face. Okamoto did so for the nose, which he actually found big, as perhaps many Japanese people in those times did. But excepting the nose, and perhaps the small chin, there is no other noticeable exaggeration. Even like this, “Okamoto’s Einstein” does not actually look like “our contemporary Einstein.” For instance, it does not show Einstein’s ruffled hair we are used to seeing and associateing with him. Because, nowadays, a representation of Einstein showing him without his hair standing on end can hardly claim to be a portrait; and if it is done, it is only after difficulty that the beholder can identify the most famous and portrayed scientist of all time. But, if Okamoto did not add this feature to his portrait it is because he could not. Indeed, the electric-shock hair is something we have added to Einstein’s countenance only recently (a contemporary convention for representing scientists). The presence of a pipe in Okamoto’s portrait is something else that I would like to comment on. The pipe can be seen in many earlier photographs of Einstein. However, for some reason, it is absent in Einstein’s more recent portraits (Figure 7). A pipe in a contemporary portrait of Einstein would look out of place, completely discordant without our image of him. What these examples show is that the way portraits are created is conventional, depending on the specific visual culture, or subculture, of the portraitist and the audience. Sometimes certain features are emphasized (the nose), other times elements are taken out (the pipe) or new ones are created (the electric-shock hair). In this way, Einstein’s visual features have changed through the years.

The way we portray someone is then conventional, and it is based on an understood agreement between the portraitist and the future beholder. When the portraitist executes a portrait that does not live up to the expectations of the audience, the portrait has failed in its main aim. Using their previous experience, the beholder is not able to read the picture and, consequently, they do not recognize the person being portrayed. And as I said before, this is not a matter of likeness, it has to do more with conventions. Take for example the pictures of Einstein taken at the press conference he held in Princeton in February 1950 (Figure 6). Me, personally, I have seen many photographs of Einstein, but these are the ones that shock me the most: this is simply not the “Einstein” I am used to imagining, I mean, “my Einstein.” There is something that disturbs me about these pictures, maybe the glasses he is wearing, his gesture, the pullover, his old age … . It is not yet clear to me, but he is definitively not “my Einstein.” And, more importantly, this is not only a personal consideration. “My Einstein” is the “Einstein” of many other people. As a first-hand testimony to this widespread rejection, I can say that I do not remember having seen these pictures in any physics department. The “Einstein” of Figure 6 is not the “Einstein” of a professional physicist. You can also go and look at posters or postcards that are currently sold, and I assure you that you will not usually encounter these photographs. What happens with Einstein is that, as with any other facial icon, when the portrait does not correspond to the previous experience and knowledge of the audience, it is rejected. Richard Brilliant has expertly discussed this issue in his book on the psychology of portraiture: “Once the portrait type of a famous figure has been accepted as definitive, even normative, portraits that do not conform to the type disturb our sense of the whole person whose image we have formed in our minds.”[source] Brilliant’s interpretation may seem somehow static, for no portrait can be “accepted as definitive.” Nonetheless, the general idea that the audience normally rejects images that do not conform to their visual background is clear.

6. Still from Einstein’s press conference in Princeton, February 1950.

There are many reasons why a portrait can sometimes not match the image we have of the portrayed person. When Life magazine excluded some of the pictures taken by Lotte Jacobi in 1938, the reason was that “the magazine deemed Jacobi’s portrayal of Einstein too informal to publish.”[source] The decision was not about likeness, but about conventions. (Convention does not mean arbitrariness! In fact, it is quite the opposite.) When I reject Einstein’s picture in Figure 6 I do it because he does not look like “my Einstein.” The same occurs when people see a picture where he looks too young, too old, or his hair is not dishevelled enough. A portrait is a visual representation of someone done in a particular place and time, so it has to be read within certain specific cultural conventions.

7. Portraits of Einstein: painting (detail), stencil graffiti, photograph, painting,
digital image, caricature (detail), sculpture, design (detail).

Let us examine another example: the caricature on the cover of Sidney Harris’ book, Einstein Simplified (Figure 8). The illustration on the left side tries to reproduce the details of Einstein’s face, the intention is likeness. The image is not very successful, but some people will still recognize Einstein – even out of the context of the cover. The picture in the middle is much simpler. It emphasizes some features: hair, eyebrows, eyes, nose, and moustache. But the third picture on the right side is completely “wrong.” This is not Einstein! Nobody; Sidney Harris, the reader, the author of these lines, or whoever, will recognize Einstein in this picture. This occurs because the features that we “naturally” associate to Einstein are not present. The hair does not look like “Einstein’s hair,” and the geometrical objects representing the centre of the face are simply mistaken (even the moustache is practically unidentifiable). I have used the term “wrong,” something that perhaps sounds inappropriate when talking about conventions, but what I mean is that Harris misunderstood something: he tried to portray Einstein, but what he drew is not “the Einstein” we are familiar with. Richard Brilliant has described this process of simplification as sanitation: “This sanitizing of facial expression, and the resulting imposition of conformist attitudes on the presentation of the subject, allows the successful portraitist to encase his subject within the masks of convention.”[source] Using Brilliant’s words, we can conclude that Harris’ process of sanitizing Einstein’s face terminated in failure.

8. Einstein Simplified by Sidney Harris.

I have created “my own Einstein” (Figure 9). It is very simple; it took me less than a minute. It is not a painting or even a caricature; it is more like a logo: it should be recognizable at first sight. There are no eyebrows, no eyes, no nose, and no pipe; just “hair” and “moustache.” I hope that when somebody looks at it, they will see, first, a head, second, something that looks like hair, and then the moustache; this should be enough to bring them to Einstein. Of course, this is “my Einstein” and I have tried to depict him as it makes sense to me. But while portraying him I always had in mind the reader: you who are reading and looking at this. Without this dialogue between the portraitist and the beholder it would be no portrait at all; just lines on a white background or, at most, the head of an unknown person. If we agree that this is a portrait of Einstein it is because we have been taught to read it that way. By constant repetition of the most relevant features of the face, in this case hair and moustache, the association between the representation and the represented is engraved in our memory.

9. Einstein logo by the author.

These are, I believe, Einstein’s main facial features in the present time. You can add eyes and nose if you wish, but the drawing will still be a portrait of Einstein. It should be repeated that Einstein’s features are not universal and will certainly not be forever. Just as the outdated pipe have been eradicated from recent portraits (even Einstein’s pictures where he holds a pipe have fallen out of favour), and his nose lost relevance, some other features may arise, change, or disappear. What is more, Einstein’s face could even die as a visual phenomenon. A couple of examples will clarify further this relativity of visual representations and its manifold readings: a Western young man will remember John Lennon when seeing round glasses, but an Indian will think about Mahatma Gandhi; a toothbrush moustache can be that of Adolf Hitler for an old German person, but appertaining to Chaplin’s Charlot to a movie buff. And, finally, any of Einstein’s portraits in Figure 7 or my own in Figure 9 could be taken by a Mexican as a representation of “Doctor Chapatín” (scandalous reading!). The context indicates the “correct” reading of an image.