Do I read too much into photographs?

Regarding my recent comment that Obama in a certain photo looks like a black despot, Nicholas Stix writes at his blog:

Larry Auster is a brilliant man, but like most sluggers in baseball, this intellectual slugger hits a lot of home runs, but also strikes out a lot. A particular “hole in his swing” is his tendency to over-interpret photographic portraits. E.g., see his analysis of a publicity picture of a young Sophia Loren.

I would ask Mr. Stix how I went wrong in my discussion of the photo of Sophia Loren. I thought it was a solid double.

However, since my occasional interpretations of photographs of public figures invariably arouse strong objections from some readers, either because they believe that my interpretations are way off-base, or because they think that it’s wrong to discuss people’s physical appearance at all, perhaps I should stop posting such comments, and thus raise my average.

- end of initial entry -

Jeff W. writes:

I think you are good at interpreting photographs, and I agree with your interpretations about 90 percent of the time.

I don’t believe that you can tell much about young people’s personalities by looking at their faces. But as people get older, personality differences begin to show. By age 40, cheerful people have cheerful-looking faces and bitter people start to look bitter.

It was Orwell who said, “At age 50, every man has the face he deserves.”

Roger G. writes:

“Perhaps I should stop posting such comments, and thus raise my average.”

Positively not. Keep on doing just what you’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Stix has you dead on. He’s absolutely right. But the strikeouts are part of the package. People were just as enthralled by Babe Ruth’s whiffs as his homers. If you start getting cautious for fear of error, then we will be deprived of valuable observations and insights. Though your positions are sometimes incorrect, they are never unworthy.

JP writes:

Do you read too much into photographs? No you don’t. Your comments about the physical appearance of our public figures are one of the reasons I donated to your blog. The other day, someone told me that he had been looking through his company’s archives and was struck by how totally different the managers in the past looked. The men were so “masculine” looking. This really is an important issue.

Here in Southern California most people notice the vast hordes of ugly looking people. More striking for me is the absence of large numbers of very attractive people that used to be everywhere. Saddest of all is how ugly are our current celebrities. It really is a different society.

Gary Moe writes:

JP writes: “Here in Southern California most people notice the vast hordes of ugly looking people. More striking for me is the absence of large numbers of very attractive people that used to be everywhere.”

I was born in L.A. in 1957, and have lived in L.A. and Orange County my whole life. I have to agree with JP. A very typical scene one sees here is that of a homely, squat peasant woman with a waddling gait, pushing a stroller or shopping cart with 4 or 5 children in tow. One benefit of getting control of our border is that it would cut way down on the eye pollution.

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:

I have realized that some people are just not interested in looking at visual cues and clues in people. Perhaps it is a character thing. But, many highly successful people, and not only filmmakers and photographers, have relied on appearances, expressions, body language and other visual signals to add to their information about people. Some even narrow down their hiring and firing to that final bit of revelation.

One think I’ve recently noticed about Obama is a strange glint he has in his eyes. To me, this shows me that he is either deranged or extremely angry. This is occurring more and more often. Either way, I would not want him around me, let alone as a president.

LA replies:

Much of the time he projects an extremely unpleasant air, which is unusual for any politician, let alone a president, and which is all the more suprising since, at least in the early days of his candidacy, his relaxed, pleasant quality was one of the notable things about him. This change fits with the general perception on the right that his pleasant quality was an act and that once he acquired power his true self has come out more and more.

Aaron S. writes:
Subject: photographs


Larry, that would be like a slugger refusing to come to the plate after hitting a grand slam. The recent piece on Michelle Obama was both perceptive and hilarious. I laughed out loud then chuckled for several minutes. It helped that I had recently watched a film with Victor Mature. I forwarded the piece to several friends with the heading, “Victor Mature body, ghetto head,” along with the following picture, advising that they keep it in mind while reading:


It was very well received.

I also agree with the things you wrote concerning Sophia Loren. I think people get hung up on the kinds of things you say in the last few sentences of your entry. Unable to think in terms larger than those relating to the individual self, they take such claims as psychological/reductionist ones, as if Loren had to be thinking the kinds of things you were saying in order for your observations not to be “stretching.”

But as a general claim what you say makes sense, because her mien reflects or bespeaks a certain cultural atmosphere, one in which some expressions of the face and body prevailed over others.

This came up recently as I was explaining to a liberal friend why I couldn’t stand “Mad Men,” despite its attempts at invoking an era that would, presumably, be more to my liking. The difficulty, I said, was not in the small details that people typically obsess over (furniture, clothing, etc.), but in the way people on that show speak, move, and express things on their faces—pure contemporary liberalism, with its easy sarcasm, furrowed brows, labored attempts at knowing hipness.

Could there be a less attractive cohort of famous people than our current crop of Hollywood stars? This is part due to physical preferences, part due to facial expressions and bodily movements, but these are all relevant. They all mean something.

So keep up the good work and please do not stop the observations on physical characteristics.

LA replies:

Thank you very much.

I would just say that the Victor Mature I was thinking of is even more muscle-bound and stiff than he appears in the photo of him as Sampson. The reason I thought of Mature in relation to Michelle Obama was that her overdeveloped musculature and lack of grace reminded me of him.

May 27

Jonah O. writes:

It’s not that I think it is somehow inappropriate, but rather it doesn’t engender interesting comment. It seems to just affirm existing beliefs, and in that regard is a bit of a Rorschach. People who already dislike Obama will remark on his haughtiness and reserve, and people with less-strong feelings won’t say or notice anything. Pareidolia.

LA replies:

There’s something to what you’re saying. But what is pareidolia?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 26, 2010 11:34 AM | Send

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