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Technical Perspective: Portraiture in the Age of Big Data

"I have never been aware before how many faces there are.
There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several."
Rainer Maria Rilke

How many faces does a person possess? That is, how much does a face vary in its appearance over the lifetime of a given individual? Aging, of course, produces the greatest changes in facial structure, as anyone who has ever tried to pick out an adult friend from his first-grade class photo can attest. This is why many official ID documents require their holders to update their photograph every 5–10 years. But even at shorter temporal scales (days or weeks) there could be significant variations due, for instance, to the changes in hairstyle, eyewear, facial hair, or makeup. Add to that the changing pose (full face, profile, 3/4 view) and the constant parade of momentary changes in facial expression: happy, amused, content, angry, pensive ... there are literally hundreds of words for describing the nuances of the human face.

This, of course, poses a great problem for portraitists, for how can a single portrait, even the most masterful one, ever come close to capturing the full gestalt of a living face? Indeed, many great artists have been obsessively preoccupied with this very question. Rembrandt painted over 60 self-portraits over his lifetime, a monumental study of his own face. Da Vinci, a master of visual illusion, purposefully blurred the corners of Mona Lisa's mouth and eyes, perhaps in an effort to transcend the immediacy of the moment and let the observer mentally "paint in" the missing details. The cubists argued that to truly seize the essence of a person requires forgoing the traditional single-perspective 2D pictorial space and instead capture the subject from several viewpoints simultaneously, fusing them into a single image. Cinema, of course, has helped redefine portraiture as something beyond a single still image—the wonderful "film portraits" of the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Julia Andrews capture so much more than the still-life versions. Yet, even the cinema places strict limits on the temporal dimension since filming a movie rarely takes longer than a few months, which is only a small fraction of a person's life.


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