Galtonian composite photograph, frontispiece to The Criminal by Havelock Ellis (1890).

Losing Face

[Camera] operants, with not very numerous exceptions, bore a reputation similar to that of itinerant portrait painters, who anticipate the death of their victims, by destroying every aspect of life-likeness in the faces they execute. (M.A. Root, The Camera and the Pencil, xv, 1864)

Alan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive” is a masterful piece of writing. Sekula proposes that the growth of photographic archives in the 19th century follow two paradoxical models. There is the nominalist position of Bertillon, who amassed files of criminal photographs and catalogued their various facial features. The other position could be characterized as essentialist, marked by Francis Galton’s composite photographs which sought to determine the essential “look” of the criminal face by synthetic means. Bertillon’s attempt to identify criminals by their faces was later displaced by Galton’s invention of fingerprinting—the bureaucratic difficulty of sorting and cataloging faces was greater than the more easily quantifiable fingerprint. But this did not deter the effort to identify qualities of character through images; Galton’s method was applied to ethnography and anthropology more successfully than it was in criminology.

While Sekula cites Marcus Aurelius Root to support his thesis that photography was used to generalize mass quantities of data, and to promote cohesive social bonds, I believe this reading is skewed. Root’s writing reflects to a larger extent his desire that photographs be individuated. Root devotes an entire chapter to “Expression—Through the Face”:

In the course of this work I have repeatedly and most emphatically urged that expression is essential to a portrait, whether it be taken with a camel’s hair pencil, or with the pencil of the sun. Nor can this point be pressed too often or too forcibly. For a portrait so styled, however splendidly colored, and however skillfully finished its manifold accessories, is worse than worthless if the pictured face does not show the soul of the original,—that individuality or selfhood, which differences him from all beings, past, present, or future. The creative power never repeats itself; but in every successive performance presents somewhat varying from all existences that have been or are. (143)

There is a pronounced division between the aesthetic response to the face as a window to the soul and the “scientific” approach to faces as a generalizable datum of types of mind. It isn’t that Sekula is wrong, so much as that he is concerned entirely with the construction of the nineteenth century “mind” as reflected through its statistical approach to quantifying the behavioral as a function of appearance. I am more concerned with the construction of the face as an ethical “call to conscience.” That Root equates bad portraits with murder is intensely fascinating to me.

C.S. Peirce was tremendously influenced by Galton’s work. The way we read someone’s personality at a glance to determine if we like them or not is likened to a comparison with a Galtonian composite photograph:

In general, we virtually resolve upon a certain circumstance to act as if certain imagined circumstances were perceived. This act which amounts to such a resolve, is a peculiar act of the will whereby we cause an image, or icon, to be associated, in a peculiarly strenuous way, with an object represented to us by an index. This act itself is represented in the proposition by a symbol, and in the consciousness of it fulfills the function of a symbol in the judgment. Suppose, for example, I detect a person with whom I have to deal, in an act of dishonesty. I have in my mind something like a “composite photograph” of all the persons that I have known and read of that have the character, and at the instant I make the discovery concerning that person, who is distinguished from the others by certain indications, upon that index, at that moment, down goes the stamp of RASCAL, to remain indefinitely. (Of Reasoning in General, 19-20)

However, it is also notable that for Peirce all photographs are composites:

Even what is called an “instantaneous photograph,” taken with a camera, is a composite of the effects of intervals of exposure more numerous by far than the sands of the sea. (21)