Schlagwort-Archive: typification

Gay Composite Portraits?

Gay Composite Portraits? American Scientists Develop Algorithms That Trace Homosexuality in the Face (Raul Gschrey)

Composite screening is back again… For a study conducted at Stanford University, USA, two scientists, Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang, have developed an algorithm that aims to detect the sexual orientation of individuals in their facial appearance. The scientists draw on pictures from a dating website and claim that their big-data experiment reveals the homosexual orientation of men with a certainty of 81%, that of women with 74% by means of their special facial recognition and matching software. The deep neural networks (DNN) adopted by artificial intelligence (AI) would excel at recognizing patterns in large unstructured data in order to make predictions. The results of the AI, they argue, were more reliable than the human brain and revealed the limits of human perception. The authors conclude that sexual orientation might be pre-natal (probably inherited) and that this inner disposition is shown in the outer facial appearance. Here we are back again in Francis Galton’s world: In a revived version of prejudice-entrenched nineteenth-century scientific positivism.


Wang, Yilun; Kosinski, Michal: “Composite faces and the average facial landmarks built by averaging faces classified as most and least likely to be gay.” In: Wang, Yilun; Kosinski, Michal: “Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces.” Forthcoming in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. []

And here the whole endeavor becomes most problematic, the scientist have chosen to publish composite portraits of male and female – gay and straight ‘faces’, showing “the average landmark locations and aggregate appearance of the faces classified as most and least likely to be gay.” And this visual data is in a second step used to classify the outer appearance of homosexual people. These remarks sound just like an excerpt from Lombroso’s or Galton’s work, who are not only known as father figures of the racist and ‘pseudo-scientific’ fields of criminal anthropology and eugenics, but also pioneered the technique of composite portraiture:

“Average landmark locations revealed that gay men had narrower jaws and longer noses, while lesbians had larger jaws. Composite faces suggest that gay men had larger foreheads than heterosexual men, while lesbians had smaller foreheads than heterosexual women.”[1]

In their article Kosinski and Wang mention the long problematic (scientific) history of physiognomy, but argue that, despite all taboos, scientific evidence suggested such a link. In the case of the visual signs for specific sexual orientations, they point to hormonal theories and genetic dispositions, but also social factors; or ‘nature and nurture’ as it is referred to in the report, an expression coined by Sir Francis Galton himself. And this inconsiderate approach to scientific theories, techniques and terminology of the past seems to characterize their study, such as the application of the term ‘race’ in relation to ethnic diversity.

As sort of a disclaimer, ethical issues and privacy concerns are discussed and the authors warn that government and private agencies were already involved with identifying face-based classifiers that are aimed at detecting intimate traits. While Kosinski and Wang argue that their findings could alert the public, rather than providing evidence against a minority group, the thoughtless and (historically) uncritical publication of a visually strong and potentially derogative composite portrait is highly questionable and might be dangerous. This is attested by a number of newspaper articles that present short and oversimplified summaries of the findings and often use the ‘gay composite’ as a visual anchor.[2] Some are thinking the approach further and warn of algorithms that could detect psychological disposition and political inclination in the face,[3] while other journalists focus on the criticism from LGBT groups.[4]

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.

Galton Papers: A Researcher’s Nightmare

Research visit to the „Galton Papers“, University College London, Special Collections, April, 2015.

The „Special Collections“ of University College London are housed in the central library of the University. Only library card holders can enter, so a member of staff picks me up at the high-security entrance gate. After a hike through corridors, I am let to a room where on a library cart a huge pile of boxes and folders waits for me. This is quite a lot of stuff, and I have only ordered the material that seemed to be essential. Galton was an avid collector and everything seemed to be of interest: from letters to photographs, notebooks and articles, envelopes and scraps of paper. This is as much a heaven as a nightmare for a researcher like me. Here I will spend the next days, sifting through the material. The collection is well arranged and a considerable part of the material on and by Francis Galton was digitised recently. But especially with photographs and notes, it is important to consult the originals. To order and categorise the photographs, for instance, Galton used a form of binding. These small booklets that resemble flip books and that could be described as preliminary stages in the production of composite portraits. Often there are notes on the back of the prints, for instance, the remark: “This man’s nose spoils the composite.” Also the notebooks and letter books can be accessed as originals.

The material kept in the collection leads to further London museums and archives where information on Galton’s photographic practice is kept, such as the Metropolitan Archive, the Bethlem Museum and Archive, the Huxley Collection at Imperial College and the National Archives.

GaltonPapers_10 GaltonPapers_11 GaltonPapers_12

Recording Race: Huxley

Recording Race: T. H. Huxley’s Photographic Survey of the Races of the British Empire. Research visit to the „Thomas Henry Huxley Papers“, Imperial College London, April 2015.

It is certainly not easy to get an appointment at the archives of Imperial College London, where theThomas Henry Huxley Papers” are kept. This is the only archive I have encountered so far that would make a letter of intent, a project description, as well as a letter from my supervisor and university a prerequisite for consulting the materials. However, after settling all those issues, I am received cordially and a seat and research aids have been prepared for me.

Thomas Henry Huxley was a traveler, biologist and educational reformer, he is however best known as an important advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He shared a circle of friends with Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, with whom he exchanged letters that are kept in the archive. For instance in a letter dated October 16th, 1886, Francis Galton asks Huxley’s opinion on the biographies of Erasmus Darwin and Charles Darwin in relation to a proposal for a monument.

Races of the Empire

I am, however, particularly interested in his project of a visual survey of the ‘races’ of the British Empire, that was launched in 1869,  and for which Huxley developed a anthropometrical photographic standard for the depiction the human body. The plan originated in the Ethnological Society of which Huxley was president, and which sought to improve the quality of data in the field and establish a scientific classification of the ‘races’ of the British Empire.  The project however was administered by the Colonial Office in London that sent out an official request to the colonial administrations and forwarded the material, photographs and letters, to Huxley. Even though the material that he received was never used in his publications or in the work of the Ethnological Society, the portraits represent an important, if problematic, insight into the practices of scientific photographic depiction of the human body and in particular of colonial subjects. Recording Race: Huxley weiterlesen

Positivist to the Bone: Lombroso Museum

Research visit to the “Museo di anthropologica criminale”, the Lombroso Museum for Criminal Anthropology in Turin/Italy, August 2014.

The navigation system leads us into the busy city of Turin in northern Italy, past huge shopping malls and petrol stations, past the derelict illegal housings of migrants, along the river and through the scenic city centre and on to a quieter part of town where the museum occupies a historical university building. The collection was created by the Italian physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso in 1892 and has continuously existence ever since. It moved back to its former location the “Palazzo degli Instituto Anatomico” and was redone recently, explanations were added and multi-media installations guide the visitor, but the artefacts and the presentation are still in the vein of the famous advocate for positivist criminology.


The in the pompous hallway of the late nineteenth century building that was constructed as a “city of science” a video installation is installed below the ceiling. The inner side of the circular object shows portraits and specimen from the collection, a moving projector throws similar images onto this screen and creates temporary superimpositions of different faces. This introduction to visual material of the collection has striking similarities to the technique of composite photography that was developed as a mode of scientific visualisation by Lombroso’s British contemporary Francis Galton. The installation might also be an illustration of a scientific method, direct visual comparison.


In a dark, wooden furnished cinema-style anteroom a double-screen video installation introduces the time of Cesare Lombroso, the turn of the 19th century. Positivist to the Bone: Lombroso Museum weiterlesen


Ulrich Richtmeyer (Hg.): PhantomGesichter. Zur Sicherheit und Unsicherheit im biometrischen Überwachungsbild.
1. Aufl. 2014, 238 Seiten, 35 s/w und 30 farb. Abb., 3 Tab., kart.
ISBN: 978-3-7705-5086-9

Erhältlich bei Wilhelm Fink Verlag

Endlich ist das von Uli Richtmeyer herausgegebene Buch zur Konferenz und Ausstellung „Phantomgesichter“ in Potsdam erschienen.

Biometrische Verfahrensweisen stehen im Zentrum gegenwärtiger Sicherheits- und Überwachungsprogramme. Auch in diversen fotografischen Apparaten, die das Material für digitale Bilddatenbanken liefern, haben sie sich fest etabliert. Obwohl sie auf komplexen Berechnungen basieren, sind biometrische Verfahren wesentlich als Bildbearbeitungstechnologien zu verstehen – so die Grundannahme des Bandes. Erst aus dieser Perspektive gelangen die spezifischen Sicherheiten und Unsicherheiten biometrischer Bilder in den Blick. Sie fallen besonders dort auf, wo sich Biometrie auf ein klassisches Objekt der Erkennungsdienste, das menschliche Gesicht, bezieht. Welche Konsequenzen sich aus der Vorgeschichte und Gegenwart der verwendeten Bildtechnologien sowie ihren trivialen und professionellen Gebrauchsweisen für den Status des artifiziellen Gesichtsbildes ergeben, gilt es nun zu hinterfragen.

U.a. gibt es darin einen Artikel zu meinem Promotionsprojekt. Raul Gschrey: „»A surprising air of reality« – Kompositfotografie zwischenwissenschalicher Evidenzbehauptung und künstlerischer Subversion.“


De-Composing Composites

Research visit to the Galton Collection London July 2014

This time easily find my way to Wolfson House in a side street of London’s Euston Station.  At the door I am greeted by the porter who was also present last year. I am early, so I go up and sit down in the staff kitchen in the fifth floor where I meet Subhadra Das some minutes later. We chat for some time and it feels like coming home.  The archive has returned to its old location after the refurbishment, this allows me to view the collection of artefacts and instruments that was packed away last time. I am here to explore the sources of the composite portraits and to trace connections to other archives and institutions.

Addressing Artefacts

Later in the morning a group of visitors from an American University arrives and Subhadra gives a tour through the collection. She skillfully uses individual artifacts and objects to guide through Galton’s career and his major achievements. A serviette ring with pyramids hints at the young explorer’s travels to Cairo and up the Nile, the source of the Nile being a recurrent subject in Galton’s later work in the National Geographic Society. A quite similar shaped, but entirely different object, a South-West-African wristband shows his travels as the first European into the interior of what is today known as Namibia. Prove of his gift as a developer are specifically designed apparatuses for morse communication by use of a mirror, a portable finger printing machine, as well as calipers and measuring devices for anthropometrical purposes. It is hard not to collapse in the hot and tiny rooms, but this approach to Galton’s through the objects in the collection really makes sense and could be a great contribution to the publication on composite photography I am planning as part of my project. Subhadra closes her tour with an observation of analogies in the character structure between Galton an the notoriously self-centered nerd character Sheldon in the US TV series “The Big Band Theory” and involves the psychology students in a discussion about the characters oscillating between genius and madness.

Instruments & Measurements

The most interesting part of the collection of objects are the various measuring instruments. Unlike many of his contemporaries Galton developed and designed many of the instruments himself. De-Composing Composites weiterlesen

Portraits of the Invisible

Research visit to the “Espace photographique Arthur Batut” & the Arthur Batut Collection, Labruguière, France, April 2014.

A narrow, winding road takes us through fields and woods, up and down the slopes of the “Black Mountains“, this is a harsh landscape, the climate much colder than at the coast – the trees are not in bloom jet. At the foot of the Mountain, the Arthur Batut Museum is secluded in the small village of Labruguière in the French Pyrenees. The museum is however not as idyllic, a quite impressive, newly erected municipal building next to the central roundabout. It houses the museum and archive on the 19th century French photographer, who is known as a precursor of aerial photograph, as well as for his experiments with the composite technique, the superimposition of portraits, he further developed, following the example of his Victorian contemporary Francis Galton.

Laura Falcetta already waits for us and leads us into the building of which a large room in the ground floor is dedicated to the Museum. Along with prints and instruments from the Batut collection, the small but well-designed exhibition presents instruments and artefacts from the history of photography. The museum however also shows temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists, whose works show connections to the permanent exhibition. In two small, but packed adjoining rooms, the collection of photographs, instruments and documents on the 19th century photographer is kept. Portraits of the Invisible weiterlesen

Ambivalent Faces

“Ambivalent Faces: Visual Endeavours of Identification and Typification from 19th Century Science to Today’s Biometric Recognition.”

Presentation at the 6th international Surveillance & Society conference  (23.04.-26.04.2014) hosted by the University of Barcelona and supported by the Surveillance Studies Network.

When in mid-19th century photography entered science as well as criminological and administrative practice it was widely perceived as an objective medium of depiction and was used as a means for identification as well as typification. Not only in visual anthropology, also in criminology, visual types became influential in the description and classification of the human body and face. Ambivalent Faces weiterlesen

Schädelsammlung & Narrenturm

Forschungsaufenthalt in Wien

Auf Einladung des Instituts für Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung war ich 17.06.-21.06.2013 für einen Vortrag in Wien zu Gast. Mit Daniel Messner und Christoph Musik und ihrem Forschungsprojekt zu „Verdaten und Identifizieren“ waren da interessante Gespräche vorprogrammiert – im Besonderen die Zeit mit Daniel bei 38°C in Cafés und Biergärten sind mir in guter Erinnerung. Der Vortrag bei kaltem Sushi in der Mittagshitze der Bibliothek war eine echte Herausforderung und die Diskussionen mit Historikern und Technikwissenschaftlern eröffneten mir neue Perspektiven.

Neben dem wissenschaftlichen Austausch habe ich die Ausstellung und das Archiv des Rollettmuseums im nahe gelegenen Baden besucht und dort mit dem Museumsleiter und den Mitarbeiten über die Sammlung Franz Josef Galls gesprochen, der mit seinen Vermessungen des menschlichen Schädels als Begründer der Phrenologie gilt. Die gruselig anmutende Sammlung von Abgüssen, Büsten, Totenmasken und Schädeln verweist auf eine im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert weit verbreitete Überzeugung aus der äußeren Struktur des Schädels und Gesichts auf innere Charakteristika und psychische Dispositionen zu schließen zu können. Die Sammlung von 110 Büsten und 67 Schädeln ist in einem abgedunkelten Raum in historischen verglasten Holzschänken untergebracht, die bis unter die Decke reichen. Es gibt in der Sammlung keinerlei Messinstrumente, entgegen häufiger Einschätzungen über die vermeintliche Strukturiertheit und Exaktheit der „Schädellehre“ Galls, war dessen bevorzugtes „Werkzeug“ seine Hand – die gesamte flache Hand, nicht nur die Finger. Schädelsammlung & Narrenturm weiterlesen