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How to Read Faces in Old Photos

Updated on November 13, 2013

Faces in old portraits can reveal an astonishing amount of information. It doesn't take a psychic to decode the meaning - science is showing us we all have the tools to read faces in old photos. Whether you are an aesthete or a family historian, careful attention to the visual image - and faith in your intuitions - will give you beguiling insights into lives past.

This 15th century Dutch portrait gives us clues about reading faces.
This 15th century Dutch portrait gives us clues about reading faces. | Source

The science of reading faces

The science of reading faces is still in its infancy. But it is a science, and one that the government uses every day in police work and counter-terrorism.

Psychologist Paul Ekman of the University of California San Francisco's School of Medicine is a leading expert in facial expressions and has written extensively about what the face can reveal.

It's a whole lot more than men staring at goats...

My mother's psychic

My mother visits a psychic. She is asked to bring in a photograph of the people she cares about and by looking carefully at the people in the image, her psychic is able to reveal something about their future. Crazy right?

I admit, I have a long term love affair with images. Old photos mostly, but really any photos at all, old or young. And art, of course. And I am not alone. But why are we so drawn to figures and faces? What can old images tell us anyway? Anything?

In this hub I am going to convince you that my Mom's psychic is no charlatan. The reason why the human face so enthralls us is that we really can learn about people from still images of their faces.

From psychics to time machines

Old images are a peep hole into the past; a quick trip with a time machine where you get to peek out the window and glimpse a moment of a previous day, a previous life. How cool is that – traveling back in time?

If you look very carefully at every inch of the image, the things on, or behind or beside the people, you will see all kinds of unexpected things: fashions, book titles, décor, other photos in frames, figures lurking in the background unaware they are in the shot, doors into other rooms...

Medieval painters worked long and hard to incorporate all kinds of possessions and symbols of their subjects, seeking to locate them in their milieu and to tell a story.

Look at the famous 15th century portrait “Arnolfini Marriage” (shown above). It's literally dripping with clues about the life of this intriguing couple: the little dog = loyalty; the green of her dress = hope, the red curtains = carnality, the scattered oranges on the left - wealth. Photographs can be equally as rich with personal and cultural detail, if not nearly as calculated as the Arnolfini portrait.

Faces reveal more about our current state - and our intentions - than you might think.
Faces reveal more about our current state - and our intentions - than you might think. | Source

What do you think?

Images can reveal:

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Look past the clutter

Catching a rare and privileged glimpse of a world lost by the passage of time is a big part of the allure of old photos. But it's not the only allure of old images or their best.

Actually, the most interesting detail in a portrait comes not from the objects, and our chancy readings of their meanings, but from the people themselves.

Look again at the old Dutch portrait above: Notice how the man is sided near the window – because as a 15th century medieval male he was out in the world. The woman is close to the bed, for obvious reasons. He looks at us, she looks at him. Noticing these details, we gain a whole lot of information about the couple as people, even though the picture is just a static, non-verbal, one frame representation.

Photographs, which are not nearly as contrived as stiff old Dutch portraits, can tell us a lot more about the lives and the personalities of the people inside them. And modern, scientific research is confirming this.

Reading faces is a matter of noticing subtle patterns in the 44 facial muscles.
Reading faces is a matter of noticing subtle patterns in the 44 facial muscles. | Source

40 Muscles of Meaning

Modern science is increasingly focusing on the over 40 muscles in the human face, and what their behavior and arrangement can tell us about human emotions - and even human intentions.

Paul Ekman, of UC San Francisco's School of Medicine, is a leader in this field. He has applied modern psychology to facial "microexpressions" in consulting work with police departments and anti-terrorism units. His work, which focuses on small "tells" that can give away real (often dishonest or dangerous) intentions, inspired the popular Fox television series “Lie to Me”.

Is that divorce on your mind?

A study by Matthew Hertenstein from DePauw University analyzed the facial expressions of hundreds of old high school yearbook portraits with one question: what if anything could be predicted about the future success of these people in marriage? You're kidding right?

Actually, the results were startling: the photos foreshadowed D-I-V-O-R-C-E. These results were confirmed when the study was repeated using even earlier photos:

“Future divorcées...either didn't smile or, if smiling, tended not to contract their orbicularis oculi, producing the sort of look you might find on the face of someone who is tired of talking to you at a cocktail party.” (“The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are”).”

The ability to draw important conclusions from ostensibly thin data like a facial expression was termed “thin-slicing” by Malcolm Gladwell in his popular book “Blink”.

Alan Stevens on face reading

Beginning to see

You can begin to see the application of this new science of "face reading" to old photos.

I have based a good part of my business on repairing and restoring old photos – for my personal history work and as a standalone exercise - and often wondered about all those people staring back.

We now know that a lot can be learned about those people - too long dead for us to actually talk. And that is a reason for all of us to treasure those images just a little more.

It's not that hard to read the moods and personalities in these 1911 Merrimac Mill workers.
It's not that hard to read the moods and personalities in these 1911 Merrimac Mill workers. | Source

Back to that psychic and those old photos

Maybe it's not such a stretch after all for my Mom's psychic to predict people's future from their faces. (She did, after all, predict months in advance that I would call and tell her I was pregnant for the first time - my mother wrote the prediction on a slip of paper to prove it to me.) It may not be any kind of extrasensory perception though, just an exceptional reader of faces.

Most of us will not be nearly as adept as Mom's psychic at reading old photos - or rather, the faces in old photos. But I think we are doing the same thing. I think we are both “thin-slicing” and getting real information about people from their images in photographs.

And for all of us, that might be the real fascination of old photos. If we look real hard, I think we can learn more about them and their lives than we would ever think at first blush. Just what that is is only as far away as that old box of images.

Faces aren't like granite - they do come alive.
Faces aren't like granite - they do come alive. | Source

More resources

Paul Ekman has written more than a dozen books, many of them available on Amazon. "Emotions Revealed" might be a good first read.

Mac Fulfer is the author of "Amazing Face Reading" and three seasons of "True Lies" can be viewed anytime on Netflix.

I am not aware of any long works specifically devoted to reading faces in old photos - but would be more than glad to hear of any.

Postscript

Do the actual faces in the Arnolfini portrait - not the objects and configuration of the people - reveal anything?

For me, it's confidence and complacency on the face of the man, and possibly just a hint of suspicion. The face of the woman shows good old fashioned subservience. Both appear comfortable in their surroundings. He seems a little cool and superior; she looks more cheerful and interesting.

Would a photograph be superior? It does freeze an actual moment; but then a sensitive painter should pick up personality traits and render them in the work. My guess is that is what happened in this famous painting.

© 2013 JaneA

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    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 3 years ago from USA

      I have always been fascinated with body language and psychology, and since watching Lie to Me, am really happy that facial features and expressions are getting more scrutiny. Sometimes though, I wound up with having a different interpretation than others. In the painting for example, the man is standing in a shadow, and his expression seems aloof - he is looking at neither the painter nor the woman. I find the painting creepy, and him particularly. She doesn't seem afraid of him, but she doesn't hold his hand, simply lets him hold hers. She is looking down, maybe in shame, or looking away, maybe daydreaming of another man. I was initially thinking baby, but read the comment that she may not be pregnant. Congratulations on your well deserved HOTD.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      JaneA,

      I meant every word. It is the truth. I hope to see you soon on HP. Keep up the great work.

    • JaneA profile image
      Author

      JaneA 3 years ago from California

      Well, now I'm blushing. Thank you Kenneth.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      JaneA,

      You talk about a subject that I dearly LOVE: Reading photographs. I want to know more. I tried this once years ago--studying groups of people and their body posture and some, I got it right. Some I didn't.

      Anyway. I loved this work.

      And This is an excellent piece of writing. To be totally-honest, it can easily be described as amazing.

      I loved every word. Graphics were superb. This hub was helpful, informative and I found it very interesting.

      Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

      You have such a gift for writing. Keep writing no matter what.

      Sincerely,

      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • Better Yourself profile image

      Better Yourself 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Congrats on HOTD! This was a great and interesting hub! And not something I had heard of prior.

    • JaneA profile image
      Author

      JaneA 3 years ago from California

      Still early days for this "science" of face reading, but many of us do it without thinking about it. Less with 0ld photos - granted - but constantly with our loved ones and often in new social situations where we might search for clues as to our reception.

    • profile image

      Kestrana 3 years ago

      This is an interesting article but I did find there to be a discontinuity when you say "reading faces in old PHOTOs" and then the first image is actually an oil painting and not a photo. "Old portraits" would be more accurate considering your article's content but I am also OCD about details like this!

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      This for me is a new way to look at photos and paintings. Good job!

    • swilliams profile image

      Emunah La Paz 3 years ago from Arizona

      Great topic! The thought that one can understand a person's personality traits through their facial expressions is amazing! Thanks for sharing!

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 3 years ago from Malaysia

      This topic is new to me and although I have heard of 'face reading' before, I didn't know that you can do something similar with old photos.

      Interesting.

      Congrats on the HOTD.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 3 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. A most fascinating and thought provoking hub. Passing this on.

    • JaneA profile image
      Author

      JaneA 3 years ago from California

      HOTD: What a surprise and an honor! Thank you for these intelligent and insightful comments - I'll be sure to visit back with each of you soon. Right now, I need to think of a new subject - motivation is coursing through my veins!

    • PDXBuys profile image

      PDXBuys 3 years ago from Oregon

      Ha! I also thought that the woman in the painting was pregnant! - Her posture is so typical of a woman with a baby bump - or so it seemed.

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      What an interesting (and kind of scary) hub, JaneA. I am an artist who frequently paints portraits, so I am very familiar with "faces," mostly with the intent of capturing a likeness - but also with the hope of portraying something of the personality or spirit of the subject.

      The scary part is that people can (or think they can) infer a person's thoughts, motivations, and intent merely by the expression on their faces. While I agree we can "read" a person's feelings by the look on their faces (at least to a certain degree), it's quite a leap to claim you can know their intentions from such clues.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Most interesting "How to" I think I've ever read on HP! Congrats on HOTD!

    • PDXBuys profile image

      PDXBuys 3 years ago from Oregon

      The painting by Jan van Eyck (The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434) used to give me nightmares as a child. I first saw it in an art history book I found on my parents' bookshelf. There is just something very creepy about the man in the image. Of course, the most remarkable thing about this painting is that the entire scene is recreated in the mirror on the back wall. It has some surprises if you look very closely.

    • cheeluarv profile image

      cheeluarv 3 years ago from INDIA

      Interesting and useful article on face reading,Beautifully written with personal experiences. Well deserving hub for Hub of the Day.Congratulations.

    • Aneegma profile image

      Merida Craze 3 years ago

      Now that's what I call a HOTD!! congratulations. Brilliantly written and have learned something new today. Thank you.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Very interesting! It makes a lot of sense, I know when I was a children's photographer the goal was to get them to "smile with their eyes" or "smile with their whole face" or it didn't look genuine. Congrats on HOTD-- well deserved, and voted up.

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 3 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      This hub has some very interesting information. I always had a fascination for old photos of my family and after reading your article I think I will be looking at them a little differently now. Voted up and interesting.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 3 years ago

      Congratulations on your Hub of the Day! This was very interesting to read about.

    • travel_man1971 profile image

      Ireno Alcala 3 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      Ms. Jane A., this is a first-rate hub and paintings, esp. portraits do have hidden meaning, just like the works of Leonardo Da Vinci.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Very interesting and informative hub!

      Its a unique topic and somewhat nostalgic too.

      Well done and congrats for HOTD!

    • oldiesmusic profile image

      oldiesmusic 3 years ago from United States

      I love that painting, one of the most analyzed artworks. I once thought the lady there was pregnant, but I actually found out it was just fashion those times. She pulls up her dress a bit to indicate that she accepted the man, she figuratively "let him in" into her life. Very insightful and interesting hub. :)

    • SMD2012 profile image

      Sally Hayes 3 years ago

      Interesting and original topic for a hub!