Posted by: emmajem | November 26, 2012

Compiling the Family: Galton in the Wilds of Contemporary Canada

Following Emily’s lead, I find that I too must return to the Sekula article after stumbling upon a project that irresistibly reminded me of Galton and his composite images.  Galton sought to trace the hereditary links of certain groups of people, and both his objective and his composite images have been taken up by a contemporary photographer experimenting with Photoshop in Canada.

Ulric Collette “accident[ally]” created what became a series of images when he was trying to teach himself photography and was trying to age his son in Photoshop.  The result was a composite image, but of a different kind than Galton’s pictures with multiple facial sources, and of a more focused vision than Galton’s attempts to pictorially define race, criminality, infirmity, insanity, and nearly every other condition of mankind he decided he could categorize.  Collette splices just two faces together belonging to the most intimately connected of human categories, the family.  Instead of overlaying images and letting common facial characteristics loom out while dissimilar ones fade into hazy incongruity, Collette matches two faces together in an effort to reveal common features between family members.  The results can be utterly striking.

This is combination of two cousins of the same age, the male being the artist.  Their gender difference and starkly contrasting hairstyles (white vs. dark, smooth vs. scruffy) clash to cobble together a very strange-looking entity.  This mash-up seems to emphasize difference more than similarity, but it also reveals a common lower face shape and a similar eye color.  What I like most about this image is the potential to explore the different portrayals of gender as represented by these two individuals.  The combination begs the comparison, and we might observe that while the man’s side looks rather natural in his raggedy scruff, the woman’s side is the quintessence of carefully pruned presentation.  The earring gives the sense of self-conscious adornment as does the slight eye make-up.  The dark roots to her shock of white hair belie its artificiality–her roots even look to be the same shade as her cousin’s–and her carefully plucked tiny eyebrow in juxtaposition to the male side’s large and supposedly natural state displays an attention to appearance much more artificial than the man’s.  One might even like to read into the greater number of wrinkles on her side of the face, and say that despite the fact that they are the same age, her life and her particular attention to appearance (which is all we have to go on in this photograph out of context) tax her body to a greater extent than it does her male counterpart.  This photograph of differences thus points to a scenario that might be more similar (what would she look like if her hair were not dyed and her eyebrows not plucked?) if the differentiating factor of gender might be removed.

Other images, in contrast, underscore a family resemblance that is almost uncanny in the sudden presentation of what looks to be an un-tampered, if slightly askew, whole person.

These two sisters combine to create a remarkably unified human being, their commingling serving to highlight lifestyle choices such as eyebrow plucking and hairstyling.  This image of twins

similarly explores the difference that lifestyle choices can create in a person (hair, make-up, and sun exposure as revealed by uneven freckles) and seems to undermine the fact that twins are perfectly identical, for this combination seems to display a person more unsymmetrical than some of the others.  These two brothers, for example,

seem to be a most extraordinarily perfectly matched pair.  Comparing father and son as in the following image:

both reveals the unfortunate family trait of baldness while attempting to map the effects of age.  Indeed, by pairing two generations together like this, Collette’s images (there are more such inter-generational combinations) seem to suggest a pattern for the younger half to follow.  Since the father/son or mother/daughter images often look so similar, the images often seem to claim that the image is not just of son and father or mother and daughter, but of a self and its future.

The most curious image which appears to represent a self and its future is the combined faces of the photographer and his son, who he claims “looked very much like [him] when [he] was a kid.”

But this image does more than just suggest possible lines along which youth grows into adulthood, for it is the picture in the sample which feels most unnatural and most obviously undermines the (admittedly stretched) truth claim of the photo.  While many of the other pictures appear almost natural or if shocking at least match up along similar lines, the photograph of the artist and his son unsettles the viewer in a different way because the son’s and the father’s faces very strikingly do not match up.  The son is younger and smaller, and therefore his face, though enlarged to match more with his father’s, is on a different scale.  This obvious disparity of scale undermines the apparent naturalness of many of the photos by pointing to their artificiality through this evidence of the artist’s hand (or mouse in Photoshop) that cannot be erased.  Collette had to manipulate these photographs to create these images which seek to define the reality of commonality between them.  Collette says that “there’s always something, a particular physical trait or characteristic that helps merge siblings together.  Sometime it’s the eyes, nose or mouth and sometime it’s only the facial structure.”  While this statement appears to merely emphasize the shared characteristics between family members, it also hints subtly at the photographer’s method of creation.  He picks a “particular trait” to “help” him “merge siblings together,” suggesting that the artist’s hand was heavier in the creation of these images than just placing two figures together.  He had to touch them up and align these faces along their similar traits, and–Photoshop being notorious as it is–one wonders if and how much the faces of the two different people were changed to enable their combination.

This idea brings us back to a question central to our study of photography.  Though these images seem to present to us “new people that are sometimes quite normal looking and other times far from it,” none of these people actually exist.  Even the images of the siblings, which seem to represent an almost unsplintered human being, show people who have never breathed.  Thus while the images do reveal hereditary traits in striking and undeniable ways, they also undermine their claims to truth through the undeniable presence of the artist’s altering hand.

Finally, I would like to add that while Galton’s composite images made me distinctly uncomfortable in their profiling racial or otherwise, Collette’s images strike me as something much more interesting, or at least much more comfortably based on more prominent and traceable similarities.  His portfolio is quite worth a look, and can be found here:

http://www.ulriccollette.com/?nav=facade

In addition to these genealogical portraits, it includes a series that reminds me slightly of Picasso, in which he attempts to capture the multiple sides to a person by merging two expressions onto the same body.  It is a little disconcerting, but often amusing.

The interview I drew on can be found here:

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/split-family-faces

All images belong to Ulric Collette, and the quotes which are not identified as Collette’s belong to “alice” from her blog entry which includes the interview from which I occasionally quote.

I hope you found the images as intriguing as I did.


Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing! These images are amazing in the way that they visually merge two people together allowing the viewer to clearly see the physical connection between family members.

    I was particularly struck by what you said about how the artist based his manipulations on a facial trait that he observed/the genetic tie between two people. It made me think about how he could further his work by drawing connections/merging two people who have same personalities or do the same job. The physical resemblance would perhaps not be apparent (and this is where text becomes important in explaining the motive behind the artist’s work) but the connection on a different level, I think, would ask viewers to see the interconnectedness of humans.

    This idea of both separate/different but same/related is comparable to Hannah Cullwick’s representation of performance. Though just one person, the photographs of Hannah illustrate the different manifestations and roles people play during their lives: mother, daughter, wife, friend, mentor, superwoman…and the list goes on. Whether any of these performances are real is the question that we keep coming back to, especially in photography with its issue of truth claim, which you mentioned. These images show how layered people are and in Collette’s series the familial bond that gets passed down through generations.

    P.S.
    I would also recommend looking at his Disembodied Body series: http://www.ulriccollette.com/?nav=body. It most likely would be a great addition to our discussion on the ghost mothers as well as Sekula’s article and the images of heads and ears.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! These images are amazing in the way that they visually merge two people together allowing the viewer to clearly see the physical connection between family members.

    I was particularly struck by what you said about how the artist based his manipulations on a facial trait that he observed/the genetic tie between two people. It made me think about how he could further his work by drawing connections/merging two people who have same personalities or do the same job. The physical resemblance would perhaps not be apparent (and this is where text becomes important in explaining the motive behind the artist’s work) but the connection on a different level, I think, would ask viewers to see the interconnectedness of humans.

    This idea of both separate/different but same/related is comparable to Hannah Cullwick’s representation of performance. Though just one person, the photographs of Hannah illustrate the different manifestations and roles people play during their lives: mother, daughter, wife, friend, mentor, superwoman…and the list goes on. Whether any of these performances are real is the question that we keep coming back to, especially in photography with its issue of truth claim, which you mentioned. These images show how layered people are and in Collette’s series the familial bond that gets passed down through generations.

    P.S.
    I would also recommend looking at his Disembodied Body series: http://www.ulriccollette.com/?nav=body. It most likely would be a great addition to our discussion on the ghost mothers as well as Sekula’s article and the images of heads and ears.

    -Anne B.

  3. Yikes. I hadn’t seen the Disembodied Body series. I think I mentioned to you, Anne, that I had recently gotten sucked into that particular black hole of the internet claimed by Victorian post-mortem photography–in that context, Collette’s photographs look really creepy. Especially the first one; I can’t help but see the hands and feet as cold and white and stiff and awkwardly positioned as they might have been in some of the period photographs I was examining. That, however, is not what I wanted to reply to your comment with. If you have time to answer (or if anyone does in this busy end of the semester flurry), I have a question for you.

    In my main post I mentioned my discomfort with Galton’s composite images, and I felt it rising up again when Anne mentioned merging people with similar personalities or jobs to see what kind of physical similarities they might share. Am I the only one experiencing such discomfort? Generally I try to dissociate the person from the body because, I suppose, I have accepted the “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage. Thus I find it unsettling to say that physical features shared by people automatically imply that those people share anything else (personality, bent toward criminality, etc.). How much do you think our physical bodies represent who we are? Where is personhood/identity located? What in fact do our bodies represent? And, by extension, what do photographs capture when they capture those bodies? My stock answer to that is that they capture whatever created (consciously or not) persona performed by the person as expressed through the medium of the physical body. But this still does not help me with Galton, because at the root of things I do think that physical features are just physical features. Family likenesses seem more valid to me because we know there actual are genetic reasons for those similarities. Can anyone argue that there is a justification for Galton? Any thoughts?

    • I can’t argue for Galton– to me, his work is a precursor to a more widespread eugenics movement.
      I actually saw these images a few weeks ago, and the picture I found most intriguing was actually the twin piece. If anything, this image is an argument against Galton’s conclusions simply because the twins have two obviously different presentations and are extremely alike physically.
      I do think that Collette’s images don’t quite match up as a point of comparison simply because they are art– we can’t know if the make-up suggests self-consciousness and the subject might resent it if we did come to that conclusion. I think the artist, particularly in modern technologies, is the one who determines what similarities we see (as you pointed out with the last image) and we can’t know what the subject’s presentation really is because our perception is fundamentally altered by editing.
      This is definitely a tangent, but on the subject of human likeness and perception, there’s Candice Breitz’s “Factum” series: http://www.candicebreitz.net/ (under work>>video>>factum– “Factum Tremblay” and “Factum Misericordia” are likely my favorites)
      In the series she asked identical siblings to dress as similarly as they felt comfortable with. They chose their level of involvement in this prompt, wether they chose to participate in the background image setting or to distinguish themselves from one another with clothing. Thus Breitz gives her subjects a sense of autonomy even while she selects them in part for their sameness. Breitz then interviews each sibling separately about their relationship. And then she edits each interview so that they sync up in some ways and differ in others. So there’s that complicated issue of presentation again! Human sameness is so complicated, and Breitz’s edits, in some ways like Galton, simplifies that complication by giving direction that minimizes presentational and experiential difference. Her subject’s likeness becomes a construction even as the subjects themselves have acknowledged their similarities.
      Of course, in each of these modern pieces, the people participating are likely self-selected, which might make an argument for similarity in exhibitionism…
      Kidding. I think I’m kidding. This was a fascinating comparison even if the art is founded in a separate intention.


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