Monday, April 20, 2009

Recognizing Faces

Whenever I walk through an airport far from home, I’m struck by all the strange faces. Endless new variations of features and head shapes present themselves. I know with certainty that I never have seen any of them before.

Where does that certainty come from? How do I separate familiar faces from strange ones?

Like everyone else I probably have a few thousand faces filed away in my memory banks. There are the people I see regularly in my daily rounds. And then there are the famous people from the movies or in the magazines. I rarely see those famous people in real life, but I still recognize them at a glance from a blurry photo or from a caricature.

I can recognize all these thousands of faces at any angle, in any lighting, and with any facial expression. I unconsciously adjust my mental image of each face as each person grows older, grows a mustache, or gets a new haircut.

If I don’t see a teenager for a few years, I often don’t recognize them at all. They become, for a moment, strangers. That experience is jarring for me, and it must be a strange experience for the teenagers, too.

As we glance at the faces of people walking on a busy sidewalk in our hometown, we automatically check each face to see whether the person is an acquaintance or a stranger. Our behavior changes accordingly. We greet those we know and pass over the rest.

Aside from categorizing people according to gender, the division of people into the two sets of acquaintances and strangers must be one of the deepest unconscious tasks of visual perception.

Jules Breton once observed of his beloved Paris:
“It is a singular fact that when I am in Paris I fancy I recognize the faces of those I meet in the streets. I do not experience this feeling in any other city. This is because Paris reunites the various types one has seen elsewhere, and which strike one like old acquaintances, made one does not remember where.”

Image courtesy: link.


Ritesh said...
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James Gurney said...

Previous comment was autospam.

colin said...

It's a shame spam has to come around and gum everything up.

Is there any kind of reference out there on what it is that it most important about making a face recognizable? I have terrible trouble with this (drawing the faces, not recognizing them). I'm in awe of the way caricaturists can warp a face so completely and still one knows the instant one looks at it who the pictured person is supposed to be. Some people just seem to be able to capture a likeness. I live in fear that this is a talent you are born with, and not a skill you can acquire.

Erik Bongers said...

Recognizing faces is probably our strongest visual ability. Actually, most mammals are good at recognizing their cronies.

It's strange how few pixels on a computer screen it takes to recognize a face. Once you zoom in on the pixels (in photoshop) the face often is no longer recognizable. Just some squares. Of course, the context often gives good hints but I've even recognized minus-ten-pixel-people in contexts where I think "Hey, what's she doing there?"

This 'gift' could be a big obstacle in illustration or comic books but it turns out it is not. If you closely examine faces in comic books, you'll see that from frame to frame, the same characters are often drawn quite differently. Thank God that we humans are also very good at contextual interpretation. This way an illustrator can get away with the help of some explicit heardress and clothing.

Unknown said...

I was just thinking about this the other day. It is really amazing if I see someone I haven't seen someone in 20 years. Their hair is gone, they are heavier, much is different, but I know that face! "Hey, aren't you...."

So many differences in faces, but somehow a person's face registers permanently in our memory.

Mary Bullock said...

I can recognize faces - but I am terrible remembering the names that go with those faces!

Unknown said...

aaah what an interesting post! very refreshing :-)

Judith Hunt said...

I am a small town artist and after the very long Maine winters I find that it is a treat to people watch in Portland. I am reminded and stimulated to pay more attention to features instead of relying on my usual memory faces. Also city people are so much more relaxed about being interesting looking than small town folk.
Thank you for the energy you put into your writing and the links!

Paolo Rivera said...

I must admit, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about this. It fascinates me to no end, but I'm afraid I'll never really understand it. In the meantime, here's a link I came across a while back. It has lots of great demonstrations of visual concepts, so it's worth some exploring.

Steve said...

Steven Johnson's excellent book, Mind Wide Open, includes a readable, illustrated summary of research done on facial recognition, particularly as it pertains to gauging emotions.

Larry said...

This subject always intrigues me. Not that there are so many unique faces, but our ability to distiguish the smallest differences to spark recognition. There must be some survival instict at work that allows us to reconize friend from fow.

Steve said...

In response to Larry's comment, that's exactly the type of research reviewed in Johnson's book.

I'm currently working on a portrait, still at the pencil drawing stage. It's amazing -- and distressing -- how the slightest adjustment in an eyebrow, a few millimeters change in the width of the nose, can send the likeness into caricature.

Unknown said...

Here's what always amazes me. Jim's head is probably 3/8" tall on my screen and yet he is totally recognizable to me.

Chuck Close has abstracted faces and used pixels to identify features...and still character can be identified. Amazing how the brain absorbs proportion and catalogs distances between features....which leads us to another interesting question that has absorbed socialogists and evolutionists and artists ...what then is Beauty?

Brian said...

Maybe it is my perception but I notice artists are either landscape or portrait artist. It is rare you find someone who does both well. I found a paper by Robert Mauro and Michael Kubovy titled "Caricature and face recognition." They say "When caricatures are successful, they seem to evoke recognition better than veridical portraits; they seem to be superportraits".

Donna said...

Sigh. I'm terrible at recognizing faces. Believe me,it is awful and often times an embarassment.

Jason Peck said...

Hey James,

Great post, Morgan Weistling talks about this same thing on his DVD. He says its the same way you can pic out a friend from one of those High School group shots. You know those tiny heads that are less than an inch big, but you can still pick them out.

By the way guys, Please check out the post about James over at the Grand Central Academy blog. Lets give the GCA a record in comments for our mentor James :)..

Best Jason

Richard said...

Actually, when people are in strange context, like in a foreign country, they often do not recognize people they know at home. It's as if the brain puts the home faces away in storage. Context and expectation has something to do with facial recognition.

What is also interesting is we can recognize people at almost the limit of our sight-- clearly a survival skill in early man to recognize friend or foe.

There is a great deal of variability in the ability to recognize faces. The worst situation is trying to do a portrait of someone or for someone who is very bad at it. I review facial recognition and superportraits on my blog on cognition and making art.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody for all these really thought-provoking comments and links.

I recently got my driver's license redone. When they reshot the photo they asked me to smile. I remember eight years ago, they were very particular in saying NOT to smile, because it made the face harder to recognize. Does anyone know if this represents some kind of shift in policy?

Unknown said...

Okay Jim...Here be the rub

We are now in a Philip Dick post modern digital cyber world. All is illusion. However, the Matrix has now upped the ante by having us expose our teeth, which are truthful CSI sentinals as to our true identity.