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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Flea Market Photobooks - How to Judge Character from the Face - A Complete Explanation of Character as it is Shown by the Size, Proportion, and Texture of Each Feature - Book Review by Annebella Pollen. Posted: Tue 22 Mar 2022.

A Complete Explanation of Character as it is Shown by the Size, Proportion, and Texture of Each Feature
by Jacques Penry
Hutchinson: London, 1952
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

Illustrated with 133 photographs, mostly of facial features in isolation, Jacques Penry’s system for personality analysis is, in the author’s estimation, both a "comprehensive pictorial survey" and a "quick and easy guide". It serves dual purposes, as "fireside or party entertainment" and a study rooted in "medical-scientific foundations". Anyone wanting to know more of the latter is warned from the first page that "no attempt has been made to explain [them] in any detail". The reader, instead, "is asked to accept the assurance that these foundations exist".

Physiognomy as a diagnostic science was already discredited by the mid-1950s but that didn't stop Penry from evoking a scholarly mood. With a confident writing style, he briskly delivers, first, a Question-and-Answer section to address uncertainties and then provides a complex structural formula that connotes rigour even as it obscures. Seven pictorial chapters, designated A to H, compartmentalise the face into Nose, Forehead, Eyes, Eyebrows, Mouth, Chin and Ears; a final section, on Lines-Wrinkles-Dimples, completes the set.

Within each chapter, the different facial elements are numbered in arbitrary quantities. There are, for example, 19 possible nose types, 27 different categories of eyes and 11 brows. Each is depicted photographically in monochrome rectangles, sometimes with the addition of white arrow highlights, and each is accompanied by brief textual description. From this, a composite reading of a face can be assembled; the combination of parts produces both the complexity and the confusion. For example, an A-1 Roman nose, when paired with an F-8 pointed chin, will signal a character of "carefree disposition" who is "witty in conversation". If, however, such a chin is seen with B-14's fullness above the eyebrows, then the "lack of practicality" will be "greatly modified". The softly printed photographs lead the instruction but, for women, their contents are shaped by the plucked brows and fashionably painted bow lips of the period. Several of the men’s features recall familiar faces. Alfred Hitchcock’s chin seems to have a cameo at F-5 ("artistic tendencies"). And are those Le Corbusier’s bespectacled eyes at C-14 ("aptitude for foreign languages")?

Clearly there's no sense to the system but this did not stop Penry attracting significant attention. Born William Ryan in 1904 in Bristol, but spending most of his childhood in Canada, Penry had an entrepreneurial spirit and cast about for ways to make a living until, in the 1930s, he combined his sketching skills with the claim that he could extract information about sitters from their portraits. He developed this party trick into a 'nose-reader' reputation, for which he charged a fee. Newspapers gave him page space to analyse readers’ snapshots, and the photograph become more central in his repertoire.

By 1939 he had produced a book of his method; 1952's How to Judge Character from the Face was a revised and expanded version. With its introduction by Dennis Wheatley, the novelist whose thrillers focused on occult themes, reading facial character might suggest a dark art, although Penry's calls to science were designed to wrest his work away from fortune-telling. Wheatley's hope seems to be that the book would undergird prejudice. He refers to interview selection processes, for example, being guided by intuition; Penry's scheme will ensure that distinctions between candidates can be made with confidence "on sight". Analysis of appearances will separate "the trusty from the untrusty, the generous from the mean, the kind and loyal from the harsh and treacherous".

The flaws are obvious, but Penry's system had surprising impact. By the Second World War, it had furnished Waddington's with a popular board game, Physogs. It provided the BBC with a television series in the 1950s, by which time Penry was being described as a "world-famous authority". As the ultimate accolade, in 1970 Penry’s system was adopted by the police in Britain as its central means for identifying suspects. Penry's photographic Facial Identification Technique, or Photo-FIT, built on a long history of pseudo-scientific technologies in policing, premised on criminality’s supposed visibility. As crime historian Paul Lawrence has argued, its photorealism made it seem an authoritative progression from the Identi-Kit drawings that preceded it, but in fact Photo-FIT was a mostly a lucrative endeavour for a canny entrepreneur. Its achievements in the solving of crime were unimpressive, and Photo-FIT was abandoned in the 1980s.

How to Judge Character from the Face, then, should be handled with caution, but perhaps the most interesting image in the book is the frontispiece, where the author includes his own photograph. With his combined high forehead (B-6), bushy eyebrows (D-1), and thin lips (E-13), I deduce an opportunistic character of persistence with a tendency to inflate his own intellectual abilities.

Other articles in the ‘Flea Market Photobooks’ series:

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