Friday, February 12, 2010

Physiognomy and various musings

Do you think you can know a person just by looking at their face? Of course you do. "Looks can be deceiving" really just means that we think that looks are not deceiving most of the time. And when looks do fool someone, our first assumption is to blame the duped party for not paying better attention.

I'm sure most of you have heard of that scientific study about how beautiful people get better jobs?
“When someone is viewed as attractive, they are often assumed to have a number of positive social traits and greater intelligence,” say Carl Senior and Michael J.R. Butler, authors of the study. “This is known as the ‘halo effect’ and it has previously been shown to affect the outcome of job interviews.”
As if we didn't already know.

I think one of the reasons that portraits are so fascinating is that we, the viewers, are biologically programmed to read a face. Call it "first impressions" when it happens quickly, "or "physiognomy" when it's an object of study, but either way, we are mapping out a face to create a narrative.

I looked at some physiognomy site just for fun. Dataface was among the most informative. Another site used digital physiognomy to analyze the personalities of the 2008 presidential candidates (Obama rates 17% in hostility and McCain gets 94%—ouch!). I also perused an astrology site that gives the physiognomy of men and of women. I didn't fare well.

When we take a person's portrait, we are co-authoring a story. In the case of professional portraits, the client and the photographer enter into a negotiation. Sometimes, the client expresses the terms verbally ("I don't like my profile," "Don't do anything that makes me look too old...or too young," etc.) and sometimes the message is in the expression itself. My favorite photo of a client is not necessarily the one that gets ordered. The reason? It's not telling the story they're after. People paying for their portraits usually want a work of fiction—romantic, heroic, nostalgic, something they value. For the client, we use good lighting, we retouch, and we craft our fiction with the highest possible degree of verisimilitude. In my personal projects, I get to tell a different story, one that can embrace realism. Wrinkles? Yes, please. Distinguishing marks? Quirky features? Absolutely. Now that's an interesting story. Interesting, as long as I don't have to star in it.


michelle said...

AMen to your last sentence! I definitely want pictures of me to be a work of fiction...,