composite photographs
composite photographs

Fiona’s last post left me musing about Francis Galton’s composite photography. Galton proposed the process as a simple method, inspired by Herbert Spencer, for achieving a photographic average. In an article, “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure,” Galton describes a method for exposing a photographic plate to several photographs, each containing the image of a face. The result, he suggested, “represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary figure possessing the average features of any given group of men” (132-133). He suggests, however, that his readers might be able recognize someone who is likely to commit a crime, based on that person’s resemblance to the composite photograph.

Aside from his attempt to create meaning out a crowd (of faces), what intrigues me about the article is Galton’s ambivalence about the camera’s revelatory capacity. He prefers working with photographs since “the imaginative power even of the highest artists [is] far from precise [… and] no two artists agree on any of typical forms” (134). Although he is more inclined to rely on the “mechanical precision” offered by the camera, he also suggests that photography falls short of the artists’ interpretive power in that it conveys “no more than a single impression” (140). He offers composite photography as a mechanically precise way of finding the average criminal face.

Composite photography doesn’t take the interpretive work out of looking at a sitter, it just moves the interpretive moment forward in time, and makes the statistician or scientist the master interpreter. Whether crime shows up on faces aside (Dorian Gray can wait), what is there to be said for Galton’s attempt to evade or put off the interpretive moment? Where does his complaint about the “single [photographic] impression” leave photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron who argued that they were revealing the soul of the sitter?

Galton, Francis “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Brittan and Ireland v8 (1879): 132-144

On a side note, there are all sorts of interesting composites from the period. My favourite is of supper club members in Boston: keep an eye out for a man who looks like this – he may come to dinner!


3 thoughts on “One Face From a Crowd

  1. Interesting post Connie! You might be interested in Kate Flint’s recent article “Photographic Memory” from RAVON (at

    Flint’s point about how Galton used composite photography to “suggest the way in which the memory in fact overlays and blurs the images it contains” (13) presents an interesting contrast to your notion of interpretive deferral. While Flint is interested in the materiality of memory in photographic images, you seem to be gesturing towards a kind of immateriality of the compound or blended image.

  2. Very interesting stuff here!! I’m wondering, though, about this idea of the “interpretive moment.” Would Galton actually accept the idea that there is an interpretive process at work in composite photography? Of course, the answer to this question depends on what definition of interpretation we’re using, but I’m not fully convinced that Galton or other criminologists of the period would accept this idea of an interpretative moment. The standardizations of criminal mugshots, the reliance on concepts such as Quetelet’s “average man,” and even other contemporary interests in photographic recording (I’m thinking of Marey here) seem to indicate that there was a very productive fascination with what Marey referred to as the language of nature (or something similar) produced by various photographic and/or inscriptive machinery. Whether or not we believe such illusions of objectivity in the scientific process, it still seems worthwhile to at least rethink our own critical lexicon when it comes to images produced via mechanical reproduction. We can’t have a real dialogue with such material as Galton’s photographs if we continue to think in terms of interpretation or even representation. In short, how might a “non-representational” theory of photography and the body work? This is something I’ve been trying to figure out for a while…

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