Portrait of a Type…

“Portrait of a Type, Type of Portrait: Composite Portraiture between Science and Art.” Raul Gschrey (Gießen, Frankfurt)

Abstact of my presentation at the conference „Doing Face“ at Goethe University Frankfurt, October 2016.

The photographic technique of composite portraiture superimposes facial views of different people in order to create a collective portrait. The frontal views of the surreal blurry figures usually look straight at the viewer and create an uncanny feeling of familiarity. In contemporary arts and popular culture we encounter a variety of these facial compositions that are predominantly digitally produced. But the origins of the technique lie in late nineteenth-century, when the relatively new medium of photography became established as a scientific tool. Presupposing the alignment of outer appearance with inner dispositions, Francis Galton, who is better known as the founder of eugenics, developed composite portraiture as an analytical technique to visualise typical appearances of groups of people. The photographic superimpositions sought to give a face to phenomena such as criminality, physical and psychological illnesses, race, but also to more positively connoted notions such as health, likeness and family resemblance. The technique enjoyed a considerable popularity in positivist scientific circles of criminology, medicine and psychiatry, anthropology, racial science and eugenics that only abated in early twentieth century. Apart from a small number of examples, the technique fell into disuse and only resurfaced in the 1980’s at the eve of another visual revolution, when media artist Nancy Burson took up composite portraiture and developed techniques of digital facial morphing. In recent years artists have questioned the explanatory value of the visual constructions, they have translated the technique into moving images and explored their potential in times of an omnipresence of self-portrayal and identification in social networks.

The paper will try to make sense of the special type of portrait and examine the nature of the visual constructions between their functions as averaging, as well as typifying devices. How was the founder of composite portraiture “doing face” and staging the “face as event” and which central impulses, preconceptions, and discourses formed the technique’s utilisation in nineteenth-century? This historical perspective will be expanded with late twentieth and early twenty-first-century artistic positions that explore the technique in times of interconnected digital media and computerised facial recognition.