Facial Velocities by Martyn Jolly

 This is an edited version of a presentation given at the Photography and Crime symposium, CCP, Melbourne in 2011.

That configuration of eyes, nose and mouth stuck to the front of the head connects one person to another in a relationship, because when two faces face each other, each demands something from the other, even if it is only recognition.  For Emmanuel Levinas the face is the place of authentic encounter between self and other: ‘The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation’.

In order to perform this social function the face has to be abstracted away from the body so that it can enter into a system of semiotic exchange. For Deleuze and Guattari ‘faciality’ is a process that over-codes the organism of the body with other strata of signification and subjectification. In their words the face is an abstract machine of ‘black holes in a white wall’. It is a technology increasingly becoming enmeshed with other technologies.

Fig 1. Lavater plate 29
Fig 2. Lavater plate 52

John Caspar Lavater’s popular Essays in Physiognomy from the 1770s began this process. Lavater defined his new science of physiognomy as the ‘correspondence between the external and the internal man’. He established that correspondence by either visual analogy, where a simian-looking person must exhibit simian characteristics; or by biometric algorithms, where the slope of a brow, for instance, indexed cranial capacity and thus intelligence. (Fig. 1 & 2)

Fig 3. Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin’s 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals homed in on the mechanics of the face and established that human facial expression was an instinctual animal behaviour. He demonstrated the automatic mechanics of expression by artificially decoupling the hydraulics of the facial muscles from their usual inner, instinctual motivations. He juxtaposed a photograph of the acting out of the expression of ‘horror and agony’, with a photograph of the muscles being twitched into the same expression by externally applied galvanic currents. (Fig. 3) Lavater’s physiognomic analogs and algorithms, and Darwin’s muscular decoupling, had the effect of conceptually delaminating the face from the body. But it was photography that then put the face into social circulation.

The greatest celebrity of Victorian England was the royal courtesan, partygoer, actress, beauty, and endorser of Pears Soap, Lillie Langtry. (Fig. 4)   Through photography her face left the realm of her body and entered other media spaces. In Victorian England the most lubricious place where newly mobilised images bumped up against each other was the stationer’s shop window, and Lillie’s photographs were right in the middle of every window, disturbing the pre-existing social order. A writer at the time commented on: ‘that democratic disregard of rank which prevails in our National Portrait Gallery of the present day — the stationer’s shop window — where such discordant elements of the social fabric as Lord Napier and Lillie Langtry’ …  rub shoulders jarringly. [Face: the new photographic portrait, William Ewing,  London, Thames & Hudson, 2008]

Fig 4. Lillie Langtry

Langtry was also the very first person in the world to find herself in a photographic feedback loop, that is, to feel the effects of her photographed face as it circulated though Victorian visual culture reflecting back on to her actual body. She recalled:

‘Photography was now making great strides, and pictures of well-known people had begun to be exhibited for sale. The photographers, one and all, besought me to sit. Presently, my portraits were in every shop-window, with trying results, for they made the public so familiar with my features that wherever I went — to theatres, picture galleries, shops — I was actually mobbed. Thus the photographs gave fresh stimulus to a condition which I had unconsciously created. One night, at a large reception at Lady Jersey’s, many of the guests stood on chairs to obtain a better view of me, and I could not help but hear their audible comments on my appearance as I passed down the drawing-room. Itinerant vendors sold cards about the streets with my portrait ingeniously concealed, shouting ‘The Jersey Lily, the puzzle is to find her’.’ The Days I Knew, Lillie Langtry, 1925, p40.

In the subsequent 130 years, of course, the velocity of that photographic circulation has only increased in speed and brutality. And now it is not just the mega-famous who find themselves caught up in photographic feedback loops. Erno Nussenzweig is the poster boy for the ever-present possibility that any of us can become an accidental celebrity. One day in 2000 he innocently emerged onto the sidewalk from a subway at Times Square. It wasn’t until five years later that he discovered that at that decisive moment he had been photographed by Philip-Lorca diCorcia who had exhibited, published, and sold his photograph to great acclaim. Erno unsuccessfully sued for 1.6 million dollars claiming the photographer had used his face for purposes of trade. His lawyer put it best: ‘It’s a beautiful picture. But why should this guy make money off of your face?’

Fig 5. Iran protest in France
Or consider the case of Neda Soltan. In 2009 she was videoed by the mobile phones of three separate pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran as she lay dying from a government-sniper’s bullet. After the videos went viral on the internet her face was turned into a mask and worn by pro-democracy demonstrators at a protest in Paris.

Or put yourself in the shoes of Nicole McCabe, an Australian citizen living in Jerusalem and pregnant with her first child. Last year her identity was stolen by the Israeli Government in order to assassinate a Hamas official. When the story broke and the passports the Israeli’s had forged were printed in newspapers, complete with their actual passport numbers, Nicole McCabe decided she did not want to talk to Australian journalists, or be photographed by them. But after having the door slammed on them by McCabe’s angry husband, the journalists simply sourced photographs of her from Facebook, where friends had posted her wedding photographs. (fig 6) Nicole said she felt:

‘sick, angry, embarrassed and upset … even if Facebook is public, they have no right to take what they want without asking. I was more determined than ever not to let anyone take a photo of me.’¹

Or consider the fate of the footballer Sonny Bill Williams. In 2007 he embarked on an afternoon drinking session at the Clovelly Hotel with his teammates and a group of football groupies that included celebrity iron woman Candice Falzon. Later that night one Clovelly local got a message on his phone. The local reported: “It said Candice Falzon had followed Sonny Bill into the toilets upstairs at the pub and everyone knew about it. The next message I got was an … um … action shot.”  The shot was soon being widely circulated amongst the mobile phones of Clovelly, and when it was eventually published on The Daily Telegraph’s website it attracted a record number of hits. Although the person who took the photograph could have been liable for two years jail under the summary offences act for taking lewd photographs in toilets and change rooms, the newspaper itself could not be successfully prosecuted for posting the photograph once it was taken. (Fig 7)

Fig 7. Sonny Bill

Incidents such as this show that faces don’t just have features, they also have velocities. The more famous you are the more recognizable you are to more people, but also the faster your face is circulated in the media.

Fig 8. Lara Bingle

While some have felt themselves suddenly swept up into these currents of facial velocity, others have attempted, with mixed success, to ride the currents to even greater fame. Consider the career of Lara Bingle. Once an ordinary bikini model, her celebrity stocks rose in 2006 when she was chosen for a tourism campaign. The men’s magazine Zoo Weekly then published revealing photographs of her, which had been taken eleven months earlier before she was chosen to be the wholesome face of Australia. She sued the magazine for defamation. She won the case when the judge accepted that the magazine was smutty and had implied that she had willingly consented to pose for the sexual titillation of its readers. However by the end of 2006 the tourism campaign had flopped, and Bingle was having an illicit affair with the married footballer Brendan Fevola. But by 2008 her stocks had risen again, she was engaged to the cricketer Michael Clark, and they were one of Sydney’s foremost celebrity couples, even endorsing an energy drink. In early 2010 she even signed up with celebrity agent Mark Marxson. But then a mobile phone photograph Brendan Fevola had taken of her in the shower back in 2006, which his football mates had been circulating between their mobile phones for some time, was published by Woman’s Day. (Fig.8 ) Her engagement with Michael Clark broke down and the energy drink company dropped them. Bingle’s stocks in the celebrity marketplace plummeted, and they have only recently, after a period of careful career management including charity work, family-friendly television appearances, and the avoidance of footballers, begun to rise again.

These examples indicate the high speed of facial velocity, but what of facial vectorization? The terrain of the face continues to be the site of scientific research that updates Lavater’s and Darwin’s pioneering efforts and re-affirms the centrality of the face’s muscular mechanics to our humanity — although now not by indexing some immutable inner person, but through their intrinsic role within language comprehension. Contemporary cognitive psychologists are researching the ways that facial muscle-movements directly feedback to the brain. For example experiments have shown that if you are smiling you can read sentences about emotions quicker than if you are frowning; and if you have had Botox you have more difficulty interpreting photographic portraits of emotions because in conversation your facial muscles subtly enter into a feedback loop of micro-mimicry with your interlocutor, which Botox decouples. Other experiments suggest that if you are in the presence of the representation of a face your moral standards are higher.

Fig 9. Angelina Jolie

While the face as a concept remains central to discourses of the human, individual faces are also increasingly caught up in ever-finer meshes of delamination, vectorization, and mobilization. Plastic surgery is increasingly re-mapping faces, and recalibrating the vectoral angles between eyes, noses and chins in order to shift their owners up in scales of beauty. (Fig. 9)

The facial structure itself can be morphed, or in some instances the facial pixel maps representing the person can be smeared. Consider the case of Christopher Paul Neil who liked to post pictures of himself sexually abusing Vietnamese and Cambodian children on paedophile websites. He applied a swirl filter to his face to disguise his identity, but Interpol wrote an algorithm to unswirl the pattern and reveal his face. (Fig. 10)

Fig 10. Pedophile

They then posted the image on their website where he was recognised and identified. Eventually his face was captured on a security camera at Bangkok airport and he was arrested. Neil was recognised by a human being reviewing the footage, but the technological possibility exists that eventually his face could have been recognised by a machine.

Facial recognition software applies algorithms to the same sets of vectors between eyes, nose and mouth that Lavater originally identified. You’ll be comforted to know that Australia is at the forefront of facial recognition research. We have not only already introduced ‘Smart Gates’ at our airports to match our facial algorithms with a database, but National ICT Australia (NICTA) received 1.5 million dollars from the Cabinet to research what it describes as the ‘holy grail’ of surveillance: ‘real-time face-in-the-crowd recognition technology’. Concurrent with these Australian research projects, international protocols are also being developed. For instance the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology hosted the Face Recognition Grand Challenge open to entrants from industry, universities and research institutes. This means, according to NICTA, that:

The surveillance industry is currently undergoing the same revolutionary changes that shook up the computer industry when internet use took off in the 1990s. Instead of each supplier providing a unique product, the sector will soon be dominated by standards and interoperability. Surveillance will eventually merge into a virtually seamless multimedia network embracing social media, location services, mobile devices, maps, and 3D models. [‘All-seeing eye: the future of surveillance and social media’, The Conversation, 27 May 2011]

However, even though technology is yet to actually deliver on its promise, the idea of facial recognition and facial manipulation has already become almost domesticated in the media. For several years it has been something we can all indulge in as a kind of game. For instance in 2008 we were able to calculate how much we looked like various cricketers using the Weetbix Facial Recognition software.

Fig 11. Weetbix packet, 2008

We can also apply face recognition algorithms to the vast reservoirs of faces on the internet, or on Facebook, or in our iPhoto libraries, to locate friends we are looking for, even when the metadata tags aren’t available; or to look for celebrities; or to calculate how much we look like a celebrity; or to calculate which of our children most looks like us.

In a way of thinking about the face that is very similar to Lavater’s and Darwin’s, the frontier of contemporary 3D computer animation is the mapping of actual micro-muscular movements onto animated wire-frames. The most developed example of this so far has occurred in the movie Avatar, where actors wore head-rigs which filmed the movement of motion-tracking markers on their faces. This digital information was then ‘peeled’ off the actor’s face and re-applied to a 3D wire-frame. Significantly, this technology has also become domesticated in on-line games such as Macdonald’s website Avartize Yourself. Other games take forensic ‘age progression’ software used by missing-persons bureaus, and turn them into games such as the iPhone app Hourface.

Why am I obsessing over tabloid trash and silly on-line games? I think they, as much as high-end cutting-edge research, are the symptoms of two new tendencies in the valency of the face. Firstly, we are all becoming celebrities, at least potentially. The velocity of our own faces can suddenly speed up when we least expect it. Secondly, our faces are all part of what NICTA calls a ‘virtually seamless multimedia environment’. This is not just analogical space, the bit-mapping and comparison of appearances, but algorithmic space, where faces are vectorised and turned into equations that can instantly interact with a myriad of other equations. I claim that the pervasiveness of celebrity culture, combined with the explosion of algorithmic biometrics within merging media and data spaces, has had a profound effect upon the ways in which every one of us regards our own face. The face is congealing as a bastion from which to advance privacy rights and proclaim property rights.

There has been a consistent and inexorable drift in legal opinion in Australia towards a tort of privacy — which we currently do not have — focussed on protecting the human face. Way back in 2001Justice Dowd was able to confidently claim that a person ‘does not have a right not to be photographed’. But by 2008 the Australian Law Reform Commission said that it consistently heard strong support for a tort of privacy. And last year the NSW Law Reform Commission released draft laws that state that an invasion of privacy should exist where a person ‘has a reasonable expectation of privacy’, which could potentially even include a public place.

So, why this paradox? Why, when our personal information is flowing more freely than ever before, when 80% of people want CCTV cameras in their public spaces, and when the vast majority of Facebook users are happy to use its default settings where there is no privacy at all, why are we getting increasingly paranoid about our faces? I think it is because the face is caught up in a wider transformation. It is swimming against the tide that is pulling the private into the public because it is part of a stronger current, from signification to possession. Those of us feeling the effects of both celebrity culture and algorithmic data-media are regarding privacy less as a singular inherent right, and more as a fungible personal commodity which can be exchanged in a market place. For instance Nicole McCabe knew her participation in Facebook was not free, she knew she had ‘sold’ it some of her privacy in order to enjoy its benefits, but suddenly and unexpectedly she came to realize that perhaps she had ‘traded off’ too much of her privacy. This mercantile logic is also beginning to pervade other environments of facial interaction, such as public places. Within our concept of the face the receding sense of the private, in the sense of the ‘the discreet’, is being overtaken by an encroaching sense of the privatised, in the sense of ‘the owned’.

Celebrities are merely at the vanguard of this transformation. Celebrities believe they are their own commodity. They believe that their face is the result of their labour and their talent. It is their capital, their brand, their corporate logo. They believe they therefore have a proprietary right in it. In America their faces are even protected by a common law ‘right of publicity’ which grants them, in the words of one key judgement, ‘the exclusive right to control the commercial value and exploitation of [their] name, picture, likeness or personality.’ And, just like them, we ordinary people are also believing that our own faces are also becoming more monologic, less a window or an interface, and more a logo for ‘Brand Me’. We all increasingly agree implicitly with Nussenzweig’s lawyer: ‘why should this guy make money off of your face?’

The abstraction, delamination and mobilization of the face has led to its reification. The face is closing down on the sense of mutual obligation that, in Levinas’s terms, once arose when one face faced another. This reification is intensified by the way that all faces, even our own, can be peeled away from bodies to enter new virtual spaces.

¹ Media Watch Episode 05, 8 March 2010


DR MARTYN JOLLY  is an artist and a writer as well as the the head of the Photography and Media Arts department at the Australian National University’s School of Art. He completed his PhD on fake photographs and photographic affect at the University of Sydney in 2003. His book Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography was published in the UK, US and Australia in 2006. His work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. In 2006 he was one of three artists commissioned to design and build the ACT Bushfire Memorial in Canberra.

Dr Jolly is currently exhibiting at the National Gallery of Victoria in the exhibition Ten Ways to Look at the Past, and at the Canberra Museum and Gallery in the exhibition Imitation of Life. Earlier this year he undertook a Scholars and Artist in Residence Fellowship at the National Film and Sound Archive researching their collection of magic lantern glass slides, as well as a Harold White Fellowship at the National Library of Australia researching 1960s Australian photography as it was used on the printed page. He delivered a paper at a seminar on contemporary Australian photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 9 April, as well as a paper on 1980s Australian tableau photography at a seminar at the National Gallery of Australia on 21 May, and gave a floor talk on the National Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery on 13 April. He was a folio reviewer at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in August.