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On the Verge of Tears

Glass tears do not leave a trace. In Man Ray’s photograph, Les Larmes de Verre (Glass Tears) (1932), they rest on the model’s cheekbones—hard, cold drops, threatening to fall (fig. 1). The tears are too smooth, too round, too still. If the tears were to slide off her face, they would scatter like tiny marbles across the studio floor.

Man Ray, Les Larmes de Verre (Glass Tears), 1932.
Fig. 1. Man Ray, Les Larmes de Verre (Glass Tears), 1932. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Man Ray worked on the image after he and Lee Miller broke off their relationship, and so critics have said both that the glass tears represent female duplicity and that they mock female suffering. In other words, we are to understand these stuck-on tears as insincere and overly pathetic, which essentially sums up the two-sided complaint about all female tears. Glass tears are no different.

In his book Crying: The Natural History of Tears, Tom Lutz writes that the jewel-like falseness of the glass tears marks a modernist desire to empty experience of the conventions of sentimentality in favor of aesthetics, dispensing with the messy, childish, femininity of tears in clear drops.[1] I am not so willing to dismiss modernism’s tears on these terms. Rather, I seek evidence of the very wretchedness of tears—their residue and threat—as proof that they will not simply congeal as glass.

For all of their perfection, Man Ray’s glass tears provide a starting point for thinking about the spill and smear of tears. At the beginning of The Crying Book, a recent aphoristic account of tears, Heather Christle remarks that “after a real cry, most people are hideous, as if they’ve grown a spare and diseased face beneath the one you know, leaving very little room for the eyes.”[2] As it turns out, all tears—real or artificial, sincere or insincere—disturb the composure of the face, which is where I seek their traces in photography and film.

According to Anne Wagner, Man Ray’s glass tears were, in fact, not glass as all, but glycerin drops, the sweet, sugary tears of melodrama that coat the faces of the heroines of early film.[3] In D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919), Lillian Gish’s face is lined with the sticky residue of these tears, whose presence intrudes into the plot of the film. Chastised by her abusive father for crying too much (and for not smiling enough), Gish’s character, Lucy Burrows, famously pushes her lips into a submissive curve, as tears run in rivers from her eyes. She is overcome by crying, which, along with the grotesque grimace that passes for a smile, rearranges the surface of her face.

D.W. Griffith, Broken Blossoms (1919).
Fig. 2. Still from D. W. Griffith, Broken Blossoms (1919).

The film critic Béla Balázs writes that “we cannot use glycerin tears in a close-up.”[4]  He argues that the close-up, which is already a formal practice of excess, relies on the build-up of tears rather than their release, hesitating at the tipping point. If the close-up must not get too close, tears must abide by a similar economy. Balázs wants the close-up to restrain spilled tears and preserve the heightened emotion of suspense; he favors “the glance growing misty, and moisture gathering in the corner of the eye—moisture that as yet is scarcely a tear” (Balázs, Theory, 77). Indeed, for him the authenticity of the tear is found in its suspension, the way it hovers at the edge of the eye before breaking free and falling. Welling eyes can only hold so many tears before they spill over. Once the tear falls, its authenticity is no longer guaranteed. It becomes like glycerin (a “fat, oily tear rolling down a face”)—potentially superficial, instrumental. The spilled tear, the fakable tear, is so much harder to understand, so much messier (77).

Glycerin or otherwise, tears are essentially superficial because they disrupt the face’s surface. The eyes of Man Ray’s model are tearless, and her composure is the point: the photograph was part of an advertising campaign for tear-resistant mascara, with the slogan “Pleurez au cinéma, pleurez au théâtre, riez aux larmes sans crainte pour vos beaux yeux” (“Cry at the cinema, cry at the theater, laugh until you cry without fearing for your beautiful eyes”).[5] The make-up industry allows tears to fall without a trace, containing their spill with mascara that punctuates the ends of the model’s lashes like a full stop, articulating the desire to cry without messing up your face.

Looking again at Man Ray’s photograph, it occurs to me that the tears’ falsity is not what is at stake. It doesn’t really matter if they are glass or glycerin. Instead, what matters is how tears and their mess are made inconsequential. There’s no point to tears.

Two years after Man Ray’s Glass Tears was made, Madame Yevonde (Yevonde Cumbers), known for her work as a portraitist and for her innovations in color photography, photographed the tear-streaked face of Lady Malcom Campbell (Dorothy “Dolly” Emily Evelyn Whitall) as part of her Goddesses series (fig. 3). Yevonde posed Campbell as Niobe, the bereaved mother of Greek myth who weeps ceaselessly for her murdered children, even after being turned to stone by Zeus.[6]

Oscar Rejlander, Mental Distress (1872)
Fig. 3. Madame Yevonde, Series Goddesses: Lady Malcolm Campbell as Niobe (1935). © Yevonde Portrait Archive.

Niobe’s tears are disruptive, hysterical, insisting on their unruly excesses. Yevonde explains, “I wanted to take a large head expressive of misery and suffering: no background, and nothing symbolic.”[7] Refusing symbolism, she opts instead for tears.

In the photograph, Lady Campbell’s eyelashes clump together and her eyes, blued by the photographic color process and reddened by tears, gaze upward. Yevonde also made a solarized color print from this session, a weird negative image whose reversed tones reveal even more clearly the way the tears etched lines on Campbell’s face, leaving saline deposits on her cheeks. The process of solarization, which is associated mainly with Man Ray, was, in fact, discovered alongside Lee Miller. If Man Ray’s glass tears refer to Miller’s tears at the end of their relationship, then these tears—Niobe’s and Campbell’s—belong to Miller as well.

Yevonde recalled of the shoot that glycerin tears were too slippery and wouldn’t “stay put,” so she mixed glycerin with Vaseline, only to end up with tears that “looked lumpy and not sufficiently transparent” (Yevonde, “Exhibitions,” 123–24). She continues, “we tried more glycerin, and unfortunately this time it got into the eyes and, mixing with the mascara on the lashes, caused such exquisite pain that Dolly wept real tears and for some minutes could do nothing but sit in misery, pressing her handkerchief urgently against the agony. When as last she was able to look up her eyes were bloodshot and her expressions so miserable that I rushed the focus and was able to take a face expressive of the utmost sorrow and pain” (123–24).

For all of their melodramatic conceit, these are real tears of suffering. Or rather, they are tears of real suffering. While researching Crying: The Mystery of Tears, William Frey and Muriel Langseth discovered that “emotional tears are chemically different from tears shed in response to eye irritation.”[8] Is it possible to draw such a clear line between emotion and irritation? Grief’s tears (Niobe’s tears), melancholic and pathological, shed with frequency, are also irritants; and the irremediable ache of grief’s agony produces physical suffering. The sensation of irritation seems to be felt more keenly when under emotional duress, which hews closely to heightened physical pain. Campbell’s bloodshot eyes and “miserable” expressions might well combine irritation with heartache, pooling the real with the mythical.

It is strangely intrusive, almost exploitative, to take a photograph of someone crying. Unlike the copious theatrical tears of narrative film, tears are scarce in photographic portraiture (less the case for photojournalism). There is a preponderance of photographs of stricken or saddened faces that build a history of melancholy and portraiture, but not many tears. I suppose this is for the reasons Yevonde gets at: if you are going to take a photograph of a miserable person, you had better do so quickly, before their tears become theatrical or self-conscious, before you feel like you should do something about them.

I take pictures of my daughter crying. She looks straight at the camera, her tears a defiance, not to be wiped away. In fact, most crying photographs are of children. Charles Darwin’s chapter on suffering and weeping in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, for instance, includes six photographs taken by Oscar Rejlander of children crying. In the most famous of these photographs, sometimes called “Ginx’s Baby,” a child sits on a chair, wailing (fig. 4). “It is easy to observe infants whilst screaming,” Darwin writes, suggesting subsequently that instantaneous photography provides the “best means of observation” of the effect on the face of such pitched fits.[9] The instantaneous photograph, in other words, might capture the particular ways that tears discombobulate the face.

 Lady Malcolm Campbell as Niobe (1935).
Fig. 4. Oscar Rejlander, Mental Distress (1872). Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

But Phillip Prodger has shown that there was nothing easy, in the 1870s, about using the instantaneous process to capture a child’s tears.[10] The photograph that Rejlander made of the baby crying was too blurred to be of use to Darwin, so Rejlander redrew it, and photographed the drawing.

Like Rejlander’s blurred photograph, Yevonde’s photograph of Campbell is also flawed. She “rushed the focus,” taking the picture before the thick tears were wiped away, before the suffering curdled. In the slightly cloudy image, Campbell’s face shines with tear-smeared Vaseline and glycerin. Her face is coated as if with a glaze or lacquer, akin to the “sheen” Roland Barthes identifies in Dutch still life, which doubles down on the superficial quality of matter.[11] Shine insists on surface and luster.

On film, the wellspring of messy tears is undoubtedly Renée Falconetti’s depiction of Joan of Arc in Carl Dreyer’s silent drama The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It seems inevitable that I would end with these tears, made exquisitely visible under the magnification of the close-up.[12] Tears hover on Falconetti’s eyelashes and gather density before sliding along her cheek to chin, charting the contours of her face. She dissolves into tears again and again in the film. This metaphor of dissolution is apt, for it gets at the facial distortion of crying. It is an incomplete action—she starts crying repeatedly, melting into tears anew each time, altering her face each time.

Falconetti cries for the first time at the very beginning of the film, following an initial line of questions from the interrogating judges about the Lord’s Prayer. When she is asked who taught it to her, she closes her eyes slowly and two tears fall, one quickly, the other brushed away (fig. 5). She responds that it was her mother who taught her the prayer. The judges ask Joan to recite it and, when she refuses, she shakes her head; more tears fall, staining her face with thin lines. While later in the film she will weep prolifically for God and she will weep for death, the first tears of the film are not a martyr’s tears, but those of a child, crying for her mother. They are tears of refusal, a shiny veil (sheen, again), that protects the primary intimacy and exchange of mother and child from the interrogator’s grasp and displaces the paternoster of prayer.

Still from Carl Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Fig. 5. Still from Carl Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

This maternal intimacy, held fast by tears, is what I have in mind when I read Jean Epstein’s description of the close-up as film’s epiphany. He writes, “The close-up modifies the drama by the impact of proximity. Pain is within reach. If I stretch out my arm I touch you, and that is intimacy. I can count the eyelashes of this suffering. I would be able to taste the tears. Never before has a face turned to mine in that way.”[13] For Epstein, the novelty of the close-up is its intimacy and proximity—the sudden availability of another’s pain; the tangibility of her tears. The proximity he describes strikes me not as novel at all, but as maternal: I have reached for my child to ease her pain; I have counted eyelashes; I have tasted tears. Maternal proximity brings attention to the fringes of tears and the surfaces of skin. Perhaps what Epstein calls epiphany and I call maternal love is simply a way to name the exchange of emotion that takes place in melodrama—tasting the tears of another, mingling them with your own, making a streaky mess.

Whose tears, then, am I actually talking about? Certainly those of suffering mothers and children—Niobe’s tears, Ginx’s tears, Joan’s tears, the tears of Lillian Gish, Lady Campbell, Renée Falconetti, Lee Miller’s transposed tears, my daughter’s, my own—real and imagined, exceptional and ordinary, genuine and artificial, sometimes painful and sometimes sentimental. These are tears that, unlike Man Ray’s glass teardrops, cannot be dispensed with; they are resistant tears, the incessant tears Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud deem pathological in their studies of hysteria. These tears are not cathartic or complete, but they are messy—and therein lies their threat.


[1] Tom Lutz, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 279.

[2] Heather Christle, The Crying Book (New York: Catapult, 2019), 1.

[3] Marina Warner, Thomas Rayfiel, Sarah Deming, Robert Pinsky, Erik Tarloff, Anne Wagner, Arthur Lubow, and Mark Morris, “A Symposium on Crying,” The Threepenny Review 147 (Fall 2016): 18-21, 20.

[4] Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (London: Dennis Dobson, 1952), 77.

[5] Paris-Magazine 44, April 1935 (unpag.).

[6] According to Hesiod and the story recounted in the Iliad, Niobe offended the gods when she claimed that she was better than Leto, mother of the twins Apollo and Artemis, because she had borne fourteen children (in some versions, twelve) rather than two. To punish Niobe’s hubris, Apollo and Artemis kill her all of her children. Taking pity on her suffering, Zeus turns Niobe into a rock, so she would feel nothing. Despite petrification, Niobe still cried the endless tears of the bereaved mother.

[7] Madame Yevonde, “Exhibitions and Commercial Work,” in Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present, ed. Liz Heron and Val Williams (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 121-24, 123–24.

[8] William H. Frey, foreword to Rose Lynn Fisher, The Topography of Tears (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), 9.

[9] Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London: John Murray, 1873), 148.

[10] Phillip Prodger, “Rejlander, Darwin, and the Evolution of ‘Ginx’s Baby,’” History of Photography 23:3 (1999): 260–68.

[11] Roland Barthes, “World as Object,” in Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 5.

[12] So too Noa Steimatsky affirms the “inevitability” of dealing with Falconetti’s face; see Steimatsky, The Face in Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 52ff.

[13] Jean Epstein, “Magnification and Other Writings,” trans. Stuart Lieberman, October 3 (1977): 9-25, 13.