Research Presentation, Nottingham Trent University, January 22 2015

Sense, Experiment, Surprise, Understanding.  PhD Research in Practice: a symposium for PhD students in the creative arts

Portrait as Landscape
John Merrill, Manchester School of Art (Manchester Metropolitan University)
My research concerns a myth. The myth that good photographic portraits reveal “hidden depths” when, in truth, they reveal only surface.

As renowned portrait photographer Duane Michals said:

“Most portraits are lies…. You can never capture a person in a picture – never”

In the 1930s Lazlo Moholy-Nagy wrote that a portrait should be:

“a biological way of looking at a man, where every pore, every wrinkle and every freckle is of importance.”

But that is easier said than done. The power of a face in inducing false perceptions and cognitions is so overwhelming that what a portrait shows – the surface – is barely noticed.

The problem is in the way we see things.

What we can see reasonably clearly is limited to an area the size of a thumbnail at the end of an outstretched arm.

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 fabricated by our brains and this is especially so for the face.

When we see a face we are hard wired to make constructions that are useful but inaccurate. To make things worse we also make instinctive judgements about the subject. And all this happens automatically, without conscious control and within a fraction of a second.

If we are to derail this system so we can make considered rather than automatic observations we need to remove all hints that are superfluous to the face. This means having a plain uninformative background, cropping the image closely so clothing is excluded, and having the subject adopt a neutral expression.  All the characteristics of a passport photograph and no more interesting.

_DSC7066 colou no profiler

But we instinctively make judgements about passport photos.

If we see faces in black and white we can actually reveal more than in colour. Skin tones of “whites” vary little in their range of pinks. In greyscale these can vary from white to black. And careful adjustment of tonal contrast makes facial features become much more prominent. This happens to both micro features e.g. pores, wrinkles, freckles and blood vessels and macro features such as the shape of the nose, ear, and head and the extent to which faces are asymmetrical. In every case where I photographed subjects I had known for years, I was discovering aspects of their facial topography I had never before noticed.

_DSC7066 v1-Recovered flat

When viewed together this series of white middle-aged men, selected purely on the basis that they are my neighbours, become disparate. Their facial topography is so distinct from one another it seems hard to believe they are all of the same species.


A serendipitous finding was that black and white images subjected to this kind of tonal manipulation came to resemble drawings.

This is very useful in helping derail our instinctive automatic perceptions and judgements by bringing about a shift from reflexive to analytical. It does so by introducing doubt. “What are we looking at?” “Is this a photograph or a drawing?” The viewer cannot instinctively tell.

The final element in my derailment is to enlarge – by about 20 fold. Each portrait is 1.5 meters tall. This has two consequences. From a normal viewing distance of about 2 meters the whole face cannot be seen at once and micro features, some of which are scarcely visible to the naked eye, become prominent.

Suddenly you can see every blood vessel in the eye, every facial hair and every stitch or piece of fluff.

RIchard eye 2

John Shoulder 2

And, hopefully you are less likely to instinctively and instantaneously make judgements of character and see facial terrain for what it really is – unexplored landscape.