Physiognomy Encore!

A while ago, we reprinted a set of brilliant pictures of “composite photography”, a more high-tech version of a technique Francis Galton invented in the late 19th century. Here’s a different approach, less sophisticated but still interesting. The artist, Ulric Collette (who has 3 eyes, 2 noses, and 2 mouths) has digitally stitched together the faces of family members. Many are comic grotesques, but quite a few just seem to have the normal asymmetries we all have. As the artist suggests, cover first one side of a face and then the other to see how different the originals were, and then reblend them in your mind. The show’s title? Genetic Portraits.

Here are just a couple teasers. Click the link and go see them all. 

I’m pretty sure I saw this person in the East Village about 5 years ago.


H/t to Richard Nash and to


Composite photography now and then

A student* linked me to The Postnational Monitor, which features composite photographs of different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. By superimposing many images (selected by unstated criteria) and centering them on the eyes and other key facial features, they produce visual “averages”. Here’s an average German male:


And here’s an average Irish female:

Some of the distinctions are pretty subtle. I had to look back and forth several times to make sure the Belgian and Dutch woman were not the same image. Can you tell which is which?

Statistics can be witty. Here’s “Ras’ average ex-girlfriend:

This lovely individual is the average South African female:

And the average Han Chinese man:

This fascinates me because in the 19th century, Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin and the inventor of eugenics and linear regression) invented this technique to uncover the “true” underlying features of different groups. His methods were cruder, of course, but the technique was basically the same. Here’s the essential Boston physician:

Boston physicians

But for Galton, this was more than just visual play. He thought you could identify fundamental features of physiognomy, letting one get at the structural qualities of health and behavior. Composite photography could reveal the facial features of predisposition to disease (diathesis):

It could also be useful in crime prevention. Here are portraits of the kind of man who commits larceny (without violence):


Right! If you see any of these men, look for the nearest Bobbie.

Today, more sophisticated image-processing could be easily combined with DNA sampling and whole-genome analysis to find genetic correlates of these facial features. The Human Genome Project was, of course, a “composite” of a sequential sort—it comprised consensus sequences of numerous individuals to provide an image of “the” human genome. Today, much of personalized medicine relies on genomic composites of “Europeans,” “Africans,” and “Han Chinese.” Someday, similarly blurry visual portraits might even be made from genome data.

Consensus sequence
Consensus sequence, from

Think of the possibilities for preventive medicine and crime prevention! With sufficient data, it would be straightforward to produce “Wanted”-style posters of people predisposed toward illness or indiscretion, enabling the appropriate authorities to step in and save both the public and the individuals themselves from suffering. 

There is a long-standing dialectic between the belief that individuality most faithfully expresses the real world and the belief that truth lies in averages–that variation is noise. Personalized medicine, which relies on “big data,” inches forward by the pushes and pulls of that dialectic, alternately claiming to tailor treatment to the individual and relying on racial categories considerably less differentiated than the composites above to parse disease and behavior.

The patron saint of this style of research is (or ought to be) a hybrid of Galton and Archibald Garrod, whose inborn errors of metabolism are often cited as the origin of the kind of individualized, biochemical-genetic approach so much in favor today. So we close with a portrait of that patron saint, Sir Francibald Galrod:

Sir Francibald Galrod

*h/t Dmitry Pavluk

Pinxploitation: The grand finale

Here’s a level-headed article by Virginia Postrel, who finds that cancer comes in more shades than pink. Who knew?

And here are a few more images to finish out the month. It’s Halloween–and what could be sexier and scarier than breast cancer? If you hurry, you may still be able to run down to Walgreen’s drug store and pick up one of these babies:

And if you need to hold something in place, just use your handy breast cancer stapler (these really do have awkward resonances, don’t they?)

More stationery for the cure…

We got breast cancer snacks:

…and breast cancer juice:

…AAAAnd breast cancer water. Bottoms up! That’s all I got.

Unsexy pinxploitation

Good article in USA today about the way some of the breast cancer awareness promotions grossly sexualize and objectify women. This isn’t awareness–it’s just plain old-fashioned brainless ogling. (Tip of the hat to Andrea Kuszewski)

Say it with breast cancer

Maybe I have a twisted perspective, but this strikes me as particularly bad taste:

I just imagining someone one dying of breast cancer and her family being given these; or, even worse…

Three exclamation points means you REALLY CARE!!!

Worst of all, though, was the funeral home I passed (alas, without my phone) with, yep, a breast-cancer awareness banner draped across the front. What, do they have a special this month: die of breast cancer in October, get 10% off your casket? In fairness, though, I can understand the logic behind the banner. If someone is cured, they are on the side of humanitarianism and compassion; if not, business just gets better. It’s a win-win!


If your sink stinks, think pink!

One of the things that annoys me the most about pinxploitation is the gender stereotypes it invokes. Okay ladies, when you’re scrubbing those pots and pans–represent for breast cancer!


Not to mention the troves of junky jewelry and accessories that are now available…

Pinxploitation Sandwich: Annals of Discomfiting Resonances

Feel like a nice, conscience-appeasing grilled cheese sandwich? Keep in mind that according to the CDC, Black women have a 60% higher death rate due to breast cancer. Yet our local store features this breast cancer bread:

What, no pendulous pumpernickel? And of course, Americans love their processed cheese-like food products, so pick up a pack of pink slices while you’re at the store…

Keepin’ it real (cheese).