Facial Fascination

‘Facial Fascination’, National Portrait Gallery, 13 April, 2011

Temperature of the face has increased:

Faces always important:

Scientific basis:

  1. Nineteenth century science erroneously believed that facial ‘types’ indicated criminality and intelligence.
  2. Charles Darwin established that expression was an instinctual animal behaviour.
  3. Paul Ekman’s work in the 1960s established that facial expression, and unconscious microexpressions were biological, a result of deep evolution, rather than cultural. His work has become wide popularized and influenced popular TV shows like ‘Lie to Me’.

The face is still seen as the repository of the self.

Also long history of painted portraiture, miniatures and photography.

But at the same time recent changes have raised the ‘temperature’ of the way that we interact with faces.

Burkas and niqabs

Yesterday the French law threatening fines of 200 euros to women wearing burkas or niqabs came into force. No matter which side of the debate you fell on, nonetheless it established how important faces are. To one side of the argument, since the face is the self it should be open and frank and engaged when out in the collective civic space, to signify your participation in the civic community. To the other side, female faces are dangerous things, constantly soliciting licentious gazes, therefore women are more safe and self-contained if their faces are covered


Facial recognitions software is beginning to effect the way we think about the face, basically it transforms the bit-mapped map of the face as a terrain and transforms it into a short algorithm based on the angles between eyes, nose and mouth.

  1. Camera focusing automatically finds faces in the viewfinder
  2. iPhoto automatically finds faces in my iPhoto library
  3. Airport security
  4. Animation, in movies such as avatar the microexpressions of real actors are peeled of their skulls and directly mapped onto 3D animation wireframes


Then there’s the rise of celebrity culture. This has also ramped up and invaded our own everyday lives, so we are beginning to think more like celebrities, where our face is less an interface, but more a logo for ‘brand me’. Our face is private, less in the sense that it discreetly ours and more in the sense that it is privatized, our property:

  1. Plastic surgery is becoming more commonplace, faces can be morphed and improved
  2. There are continual battles between paparazzi and celebrities, such as that between Nicole Kidman and Jamie Fawcett over the circulation of the celebrity image.
  3. In America people in street photos have attempted to sue photographers


There has been a long line of scandals involving the increasing ease and speed with which photos can be taken and circulated. Lets track back through the scandals, all of which have happened in substantial legal grey areas.

  1. Currently there’s Kate, whose sex with another ADFA cadet was Skyped to the next room.
  2. There’s the St Kilda Photo scandal, where a 17 year old schoolgirl maliciously posted naked photos of footballer Nick Riewoldt on a bed, which she had appropriated from footballer’s Sam Gilbert’s computer, on the web. (Although he also took part in a campaign for bed linen for Linen House)
  3. Another footballer sent his mates mobile phone photographs of Joel Monaghan having sex with a dog, which circulated for a few weeks amongst the mobile phones of footballers, before being tweeted by an animal rights campaigner.
  4. Then there’s Brendan Fevola, sending mobile phone photographs of Lara Bingle in the shower to his mates, which eventually led to the breakdown of her engagement to the cricketer Michael Clarke.
  5. Lara Bingle had previously successfully sued Zoo Weekly for defamation when they photographed sexy photographs of her during the Australian tourism campaign, but she had no legal basis to sue Fevola.
  6. Or then there’s Sonny Bill Williams photographed with a mobile pone having sex with iron woman Candice Falzon in a pub’s toilet cubicle. After the photograph was sent to the Daily telegraph he had to spend all the next day buying up copies of the newspaper in his area so his girlfriend wouldn’t find out.
  7. Then there’s Nicole McCabe, an Australia woman living in Israel. She had her identity stolen by Israel so they could give it to one of their agents to assassinate a Hamas official. Then, when she decided she didn’t want to talk to the Australian media, the media simply lifted her wedding photographs off Facebook. Facebook can do anything it likes with the photos you post, and regularly sells private photographs to the press.

Moral Panics

Then there’s moral panics over the supposed predatory behaviour of photographers.

  1. We have widespread panics over the art photography of Bill Henson.
  2. Regulations against using mobile phones in change rooms and pools
  3. Attempts by councils to widen those regulations to cover beaches and parks.

So this produces the following subtle, but I think profound, tendencies:

Trends in legal opinion

There has been a consistent and inexorable drift in legal opinion in Australia towards a tort of privacy, which we currently do not have, which would be 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 2003 Justice Michael Kirby was citing the European Convention on Human rights to say that jurisdictions were beginning to look toward an actionable wrong of invasion of privacy ‘stimulated in part by invasions of individual privacy, including by the media, deemed unacceptable to society’. And in 2008 the Australian Law Reform Commission said that it consistently heard strong support for a tort of privacy. Although it noted: ‘the concerns expressed … related more to the private sphere than the mainstream media — and to the protection of ordinary citizens rather than celebrities.’ This year the NSW Law Reform Commission released draft laws that state that an invasion of privacy would exist where a person ‘has a reasonable expectation of privacy’, which could also include a public place.

Consistent with this trend in legal opinion, street photographers consistently report that ordinary people are more wary about being photographed than they were ten years ago. They report that security guards and police feel perfectly entitled to stop photographers photographing even when what they are doing is perfectly legal.

The exhibition

Has all this had an effect on the exhibition? Well obviously not directly. But the whole show does feel quite private and secure.

Many galleries, including this one, balance a public appetite for celebrity with an interest in the psychology of the face. (Martin Schoeller Close Up, playing recognisability off against uncanny closeness; next show: Inner Worlds. The current Annie Liebovitz show has her magazine work enlarged up big, interspersed with her ‘personal’ snaps following he life of her family and her partner printed small and in black and white, when I was there at the weekend, hardly anyone was looking at the black and whites, but they were all gathered around the colour celebrity shots.

Only a very few photographs are candid, taken without the sitter being aware of the camera. Only three photographs (Ballet dancer, journalists, wife and baby) are taken on the street, the place where faces are in most contention. And in only one photograph is there an ‘audience’ within the photograph (NAIDOc Ball). These photographs stand out for me because they relieve the intense domestic privacy of the rest of the show. Quite a few photographs are taken at the beach, that other place of contention, but that has also been made a private almost domestic space by their framing. Similarly there are only a few staged or studio tableau shots.

Australian Photography as a whole

Australian photography dominated by prizes.

  1. National Photography Prize 25,000 1200 x 25 = $30,000 One in twenty chance of being picked.
  2. Doug Moran Contemporary Photography Prize SLNSW $100,000
  3. Head On Portait Prize ACP $50,000
  4. Albury Gallery acquisition Prize
  5. Monash Gallery Bowness Photography Prize
  6. Gold Coast Gallery Joseph Ulrick and Win Schubert Contemporary Photography prize

Curator Sarah Engledow — according to catalogue essay, has deliberately avoided the sensational or the gimmicky or the too arty, perhaps to contrast it against the Head On portrait prize. The dominant style seems to be an intense, basic sincerity. The overall themes that emerge are the family, and the stages of life

Winner is deliberately low key, non-gimmicky, but intense.

The Hang

The hang is given some coherency, as we follow from childhood to adolescence to old age, with a final room based on the eternal cycles of birth and death. This could be called a ‘Family of Man’ hang. Photography’s most famous show from the 1950s, where the metaphor of growing up in a family was applied to the entire human race.

Because these shows are selected from emailed jpegs, and it is up to the photographer to enlarge and print their photographs, there are often unfortunate errors of scale which have to accommodated. But fortunately in this show too big pictures and tacky frames are kept to a minimum with some exceptions:

Too big: Sisters; Les and Eileen

Too small: My ancestors, myself and my alternate

Just right: Donna Gibbons, Martin Smith

Too tacky: Robert; Vicki Lee and Bill Higginson

Successful walls:

Wall of patriarchs, good solid photography harking back to ‘traditional styles’ of say August Sander

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