“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.
Eine Tagung an der Goethe-Universität nimmt unter dem Titel „Doing Face: Gesicht als Ereignis“ die unterschiedlichen Dimensionen der Gesichtlichkeit in den Fokus. Veranstalter sind das Forschungszentrum Historische Geisteswissenschaften Frankfurt und das Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin.
Das Gesicht ist die Visitenkarte des Menschen, sein Aussehen prägt den wichtigen ersten Eindruck. Das Gesicht ist die Bühne, auf der sich unsere echten Emotionen abspielen, auf der wir uns aber auch ganz bewusst inszenieren können. Auf der Theaterbühne spielt es denn auch seit jeher eine große Rolle. Die Bedeutung der „Gesichtlichkeit“ wächst jedoch noch im Zeitalter der digitalen Medien, Fachleute sprechen von der „fazialen Gesellschaft“. Eine Tagung an der Goethe-Universität nimmt unter dem Titel „Doing Face: Gesicht als Ereignis“ die unterschiedlichen Dimensionen des Themas in den Fokus. Veranstalter sind das Forschungszentrum Historische Geisteswissenschaften Frankfurt und das Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin.
Kunstgeschichte, Medienwissenschaft, Literaturwissenschaften – die Konferenz bringt Vertreter verschiedener Disziplinen zusammen und bezieht auch Erkenntnisse aus anderen Wissenschaften wie der Biologie und der Psychologie mit ein. Zudem werden Bilder des weißrussischen Künstlers Maxim Wakultschik gezeigt, der sich in seinen fotografischen Arbeiten mit der Produktivität des Gesichts in der Gegenwartskultur auseinandersetzt.
Interview with the German artist Florian Tuercke during the exhibition “the others are we” at con[SPACE] video gallery, Atelierfrankfurt, Frankfurt/Main, Germany. For the exhibition, the artist produced a composite video portrait of faces from Frankfurt and other European cities. Exhibition curated by Michaela Filla Raquin and Raul Gschrey, interview conducted and produced by Raul Gschrey. Additional material by Florian Tuercke, Nicholas Singleton & Raul Gschrey. Historical photographic material by Francis Galton, Special Collections, University College London. www. conspace.wordpress.com : www.gschrey.org : www.floriantuercke.net
Workshop: Addressing each and every one: Popularisation/populism through the visual arts
April 21 and 22 2016, Justus Liebig University Gießen, Main Building (Ludwigstrasse 23), 3th floor, Seminar-Raum
The workshop brings together scholars from art history, film studies, theatre studies, political theory, sociology and philosophy of religion from several European countries. It discusses the ways (iconic figurations, aesthetic styles, rhetoric figures etc.) through which visual culture addresses its audience and gets involved in the constitution of a public sphere. It is in particular interested in how the visual arts – understood as both visual popular culture as well as fine arts – becomes involved in popularisation practices and populist criticism.
The workshop approaches this subject by focusing on the central iconic figure that these practices bring into play: the “everybody” (which stands for “all of us”, but is at the same time also a “nobody”, a “common man”, a “common woman” and sometimes even a “new man” or a “new woman”). It presents spotlights of a genealogy and an iconography of the everybody and discusses political and philosophical theories about how the mediating force of this iconic figuration can be understood and valuated. In doing so, the workshop pays particular attention to the ambivalent role this figure plays, especially in most recent history, in triggering both desire and enthusiasm as well as resentment and hate.
panopticon remixed. A collage of architectural layouts that informed the prison revolution in nineteenth-century: Bentham’s panopticon, Millbank Prison, Pentonville Reformatory. These layouts of disciplinary institutions formed a central reference for Michel Foucault’s panopticism that is now seen as an important characteristic of contemporary surveillance society. Editing: Raul Gschrey: gschrey.org
In his series of composite videos entitled „the others are we“, Florian Tuercke, whose participatory media art projects are usually situated in public space, deals with the human face. The artist explores, which collective features remain, when the individual visual characteristics of people are merged; the sole link being the place where they reside temporarily or permanently.
After compiling videos in Ragusa (Italien), Wakefield (England) and Schweinfurt (Germany), Florian Tuercke produces a video portrait of the ‘typical Frankfurter’ in collaboration with the gallery con[SPACE] in Frankfurt (Germany). With a posing chair, camera and lights he strolls through the urban space and asks passers-by to sit for a portrait. Every participant sits on the chair, looking straight into the camera, while the artist remains standing, equally motionless, behind the camera. Through the transparent superimposition of the individual takes, the urban backgrounds are condensed into abstract structures of colour, light and movement; the slightly fluctuating facial superimpositions dominating the centre of the composite video.
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.
Research visit to the “Bethlem Museum of the Mind” & Bethlem Hospital Archive London, April, 2015.
A suburban train takes me to “Eden Park”, not only by name an idyllic village in the south-eastern periphery of London. In the back streets the cherry trees are in full bloom. I cross a creek and walk along the fence of an open space that resembles a huge park until I reach the entrance of Bethlem Royal Hospital. The “Bethlem Museum of the Mind” and its archive are located on the grounds of the psychiatric hospital that is still in operation, after a long history that dates back into the twelfth century. The representative central building of this complex that was inaugurated in 1930 has just recently been opened as the new museum. Here archivist and curator Colin Gale awaits me behind the reception desk. We have a chat about the institution and the museum, especially in late nineteenth century when Francis Galton visited the clinic and commissioned portraits of patients for his photographic experiments with the composite technique.
The portraits of 76 male and 65 female patients are preserved among the “Galton Papers” at the Special Collections of University College London. The frontal, half-length portraits carry a number as well as family names. The archive at Bethlem holds the admission and discharge books as well as the medical files. By comparing the periods of treatment of different patients, who were often also photographed as part of the asylum’s procedure, the photos in the “Galton Papers” can be dated to 1880-1882. Also, not only names, but information on age, profession, family history, as well as the diagnosis notes on the treatment of the mental illness can be drawn from the material. The entries tell veritable stories of the life and fate of the individuals that were used as source material for Galton’s experiments with the composite technique. And while composite portraiture was aimed at de-individualising and typifying, these documents give back an identity and personality to the objects of study. Furthermore the photographs and the material kept at Bethlem Hospital, provide insight into the disciplinary institutions and their policies, modes of categorisation and typification of their clients, often by visual means. Weiterlesen →
histories and continuities of human measurement between arts and science