The master and me: Fred Boissonnas and expressions

by Stefan Fletcher April. 15, 2010 5167 views

The first image is a Boissonnas self-portrait, the one that crops up in Google searches. I don’t know when it was taken, but judging from his appearance (early middle age?), I imagine it was sometime in the 1890s.

I love the self-deprecating humour and the intelligent, almost parodying connection with what he did. The choice of a stereopticon and gaze say a lot. How many of us have photographed ourselves with our camera in some tacky, unsuccessful attempt to identify who we are with what we do? The subject’s very juxtaposition with the tools of his trade belies any pretentious claim to a raison d'être. Like other geniuses, he could take a step back.

What do we see in this portrait? A man in the prime of life, beginning to grey. That wire-brush hair just screams health…The taut features indicate an athletic life; the fake-dramatic pose and ears an ability to play act, perhaps even to be a drama queen. The clothes and the broad wedding ring indicate a successful man. I don’t know whether he was happily married; geniuses tend not to be. But I hope he was. I choose to ignore the moustache as a foible of his age.

Unfortunately, I have no other intimate portraits of the older man. He lived through tumultuous times. I would have liked to see him older after two World Wars.

The man liked people (you’ll see why in later posts). To like others you have to like yourself, and this is quite clear in this self-portrait. To relate with people in a foreign country with very foreign customs (Greece was the Far East of his time), you need an astonishing degree of self-confidence, self-confidence he amply demonstrated by being the first recorded mountaineer to climb Mt. Olympus.

Well, I’ll leave his self-portrait with more questions than answers, which indicates a good one. I’ll say this, though: as an amateur climber and camper, I’d say Boissonnas looks like someone you’d camp with and rely on. He seems dependable, and for those who know what I’m talking about, you know there aren’t any better compliments to make.

No. 2 is my self-portrait. I took it and kept it a year before seeing Boissonnas’. I added the others to stop this sequence of posts being a him-and-me contest (where I’d lose anyway). But look at the eyes here and think about the humour, the poise, what they’re all thinking - and then look at Boissonnas.

Can you be certain what’s behind that gaze? I can’t.

But then I can’t fathom genius. If I’m lucky, I can only appreciate and learn from it.


Without the camera, Boissonnas would look severe if not outright uptight. He knew how to take things out of context and give them a new one. And those are definitely climbers' hands.

His master's…er face


A sad woman's

A very warm woman's

  Be the first to like this post
Join the conversation
There are 9 comments, add yours!
Anna-Marya Tompa 6 years, 1 month ago

The Boissonas photo opens an enquiry into the nature of understanding expression; he is clearly drawing a parallel between the searching gaze of the camera and his own searching gaze, he has carefully matched his eyes in a line with the camera's double lens gaze and, as much as possible put his splendid moustache in line with the camera's rather disapproving "mouth". I think the photogapher is acknowledging some of the intrusion that the camera provokes when aimed at people. The ability to recognise faces is a critical human capacity, it is essential to babies to learn faces and interpret expression by mimicking. Eventually we learn to read expressions - unless hindered from doing so by certain mental conditions - it is part of our essential armoury of humanity and ability to communicate, and forms a far more important part of communication than the inadequacy of words. So the responses to understanding the other photos' expressions is interesting: part self-projection, our attempt to contextualise the unknown, part recognition. Although eyes are particularly expressive, they're not quite enough to deliver all the necessary signs to understanding meaning - think of the difference between a darkened club where someone looks attractive because their eyes are what you can see versus a brightly lit room and the full reality.

6 years, 1 month ago Edited
Claude 7 years, 5 months ago


7 years, 5 months ago Edited
Sandra Vermeulen 7 years, 6 months ago

And great self portrait of the master.
Both shots of woman's eyes are expressive.

7 years, 6 months ago Edited
Brian 7 years, 6 months ago

Very striking self portrait in #1. Mesmerizing

7 years, 6 months ago Edited
Marsha 7 years, 6 months ago

Looking at Boissonnas' self-portrait....again, to me light and shadows are what really make the photo so striking.

7 years, 6 months ago Edited
Jarvo Laysell 7 years, 6 months ago

I must say, you noticed far more in that shot than I did. All I got was the mirroring of his gaze by his cameras. I guess that's one reason why his shot may look more captivating than a typical photographer with camera shot, because who else has actually got stereo lenses to join in the staring. Actually this picture put me in mind on the cover to J.M. Jarre's Equinoxe album.

I thought your last two were quite remarkable in showing how much our eyes give away. What is it that make the sad eyes sad; Looking slightly down to one side? Head slightly tilted? A hand on the side of the face? On the surface, there doesn't seem to be too much to go on, but immediately it is recognisable.

7 years, 6 months ago Edited
Thebronzebow 7 years, 6 months ago

Unlike yours and the other two, what I notice immediately about him is the intensity of the gaze--perhaps because of the furrows in his brow and the shadows of his brow ridge. All of the other things that you've noticed are true, but I might not have gone looking back for them without the story. The lighting of the ladies was much more kind to them and as such gives them more depth as well. From the perspective of a person who has not met these women, my characterization of the expression found there would have been different then yours, likely because you know them. Any picture of someone you know, when you assess it is always overlaid by your experiences. (IMHO) Even on photoblog, I would say the the interactions we have influence our perceptions and assessment of each others images.

7 years, 6 months ago Edited
Lynda 7 years, 6 months ago

I;ve seen the women's faces before and the 1st one has a twinkle in her eye and dfoesn't look sad to mer. I suspect they are ex-girlfriend/ wife? But you are being deliberately myserious and I like the one you featured fairly recently of yourself with a beard. The great man looks a real character.

7 years, 6 months ago Edited
Stefan Fletcher 7 years, 6 months ago

A quick techie note: the corner softness is not Boissonnas'. His images are not tack sharp; they're tungsten carbide sharp. My flatbed scanner was simply not up to the task.

7 years, 6 months ago Edited