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John Merrill

Portrait as Landscape: Rendering Topography of Face and Body

As social animals we have evolved to prioritise visual perception of the face. We look at a face and instinctively make judgements: hence the myth that portraits reveal “hidden depths”.

Duane Michals, a photographer known mostly for his portraits, said “Some photographers can be very presumptuous in their self-delusions about ‘capturing’ another person with their camera. – I’ve known my mother and father for my entire life and not once did they ever reveal their true selves to me.” “Stop asking us for the inner being, essence, soul…,” Richard Avedon pleaded: “the surface is all you’ve got.”

In the 1920s Lazlo-Moholy Nagy proclaimed that portraits should be “a biological way of looking at man, where every pore, every wrinkle and every freckle is of importance,” or what one dissenter called “its appalling exactness in rendering the geography of the face.” But, with the exception of images of the grotesque, this task has eluded photographers.

Thomas Ruff attempted to demonstrate that portraits revealed only surface by exhibiting 100 passport-type photographs of friends and colleagues posed with neural expressions in front of plain backgrounds. To his dismay he received acclaim for revealing the true character of his subjects.

If we are to derail our biologically programmed instincts (our brain’s operating system) so we can make considered rather than automatic observations we need to know something about the science of visual perception. Knowledge of how we see has increased enormously over the last twenty years. Visual perception is an approximation – a construction based on the very limited sense data captured by our eyes. More than 90% of what we see is not sensed by our eyes: it is fabricated by our brains. The direction of our gaze is mainly involuntary. Eye-tracking studies have shown that, when viewing a portrait, we look at the eyes and mouth but ignore the rest of the face.

My research addresses questions of why when looking at portraits we instinctively make judgements about the subject’s character and personality and why such assumptions are wrong. Using a knowledge of the science of visual perception I will attempt to produce photographic portraits that reveal unexplored surface terrain unhindered by erroneous opinions.