The Book of Faces

I’m not actually sure if I should call Jessica Helfand’s Face: A Visual Odyssey a book. I mean, it looks like a book. It has text, divided into sentences, paragraphs, and sections. It’s on pages ...

I’m not actually sure if I should call Jessica Helfand’s Face: A Visual Odyssey a book. I mean, it looks like a book. It has text, divided into sentences, paragraphs, and sections. It’s on pages. They have numbers. There are even the trappings of academia: endnotes and an index and some hella dense prose. There are chapters, of a sort. But the contents page is arranged not numerically but alphabetically: this is the AZ of the face, from anthropometry to zeitgeist, complete with pictures for each letter arranged three across and four down. The “contents” pictures are amazing, almost too much to take in at first glance. And the rest of the pages deliver lush, colorful, reach-out-and-touch-them images that sometimes illustrate the text and sometimes tell an entirely separate—if parallel—story. It’s a dense, impressive journey through the history of modern images, ideas, and assumptions about the face.

Helfand’s Face is kind of like a children’s alphabet primer—if your child were pursuing a graduate degree in face studies and really interested in the last 150 years or so. It’s kind of like an analogue website, almost-but-not-quite clickable. It’s kind of like an installation, an artist’s rendering of a book that’s close enough to be just about the same thing.

As an academic reader, I tend to focus very hard on the words and glance at the images. Don’t do that here: you’ll miss out on entire narratives, entire worlds. And you won’t even know it, because Helfand only sometimes tells you (with captions that look just like traditional academic captions) what the images are and what they do. Sometimes, she makes you do the work on your own.

It’s kind of like faces: sometimes, the people sporting them tell you everything you need to know about those faces. But sometimes, you have to do the work on your own.


The face is universal: we all have faces of some sort, be they acceptable or otherwise. At the same time, faces are extremely distinctive: our faces, perhaps more than anything else, are our own. Even when we try to change them, they are ours to change.

So telling the story of the face, Helfand makes clear, necessarily means telling the story of both personal and collective identity. The face—whether we like it or not—is absolutely connected to who we are and who we believe others to be.

In a way, every technological intervention into the capture, analysis, and explanation of the face is the pursuit of that connection: trying to understand it, trying to replicate it, trying to disaggregate it, trying to vex it. And if there’s a running theme to this book, it’s the question of the image of the face: who controls it, who manipulates it, how it’s used, and (only very gently and very rarely) why.

The thing about pictures of the face, as Helfand poignantly illustrates, is that the person taking them is almost always missing. The person telling the story—the portrait artist, the director, the member of the family with the camera who is least likely to cut off heads—is never in the picture. I wondered if there was an analogy to writers of books. Authors hold the camera, as it were, manipulating the narrative without being visible. Except, of course, authors are always visible—sometimes explicitly, sometimes in less obvious ways. But those producing, disseminating, and manipulating images of the face are harder to find.

Well, they were. One of the hinges of this work, present in every section from the very first to the very last, is the question of the digital. While Helfand is a careful historian, outlining continuities as well as disruptions to notions of the face, she acknowledges—as must we all—that in some ways, the digital changes everything. Faces were always open to manipulation; so much more so now. And images of the face were always widely and even illicitly circulated; so much more so now.

Helfand does, of course, consider the selfie. Here, she treads somewhat well-worn ground: whether the selfie is a form of narcissism (sometimes); what dangers it might present (bullying and, at least in one case, suicide risk); the benefits it can afford (self-expression, creativity, play, access); and the complicated questions it poses (Do we have the right to be forgotten? Can we ever erase a selfie? Who gets to decide?).

Helfand’s analysis of presence and absence in images makes me think that one of the great advantages of the selfie is that, unlike other photographs, the person taking the picture—and telling the story—gets to be, emphatically and unignorably, there. To be present. And even if the image is manipulated to the hilt (it probably is), the picture-taker is doing the manipulating (almost always). She gets to proclaim not, “this is who I am,” but, “this is what I say … about myself.”

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What’s in a Face?

By Sharrona Pearl

That’s a bit new, it seems. The study of facial features, which is subsumed under the field of anthropometry—where Helfand begins in the late 19th century, with a few flashbacks to Lavater’s physiognomy studies from a century prior—was imposed on faces and bodies. So too were biometrics, caricatures, diagnoses, and certainly eugenics. All impositions, on through to Z.

Part of what gets imposed is a whole host of assumptions regarding race and gender. Helfand moves delicately but clearly through some common biases, pointing out how our ideas about faces are inherently ideas about which faces are better and how they deserve to be treated based on how they look. Sometimes these biases were even (to be wildly anachronistic) gamified, including early 20th-century eugenic competitions for the best-looking children. This practice was drawn directly from livestock breeding contests and with precisely the same end: to produce the “best” possible stock by controlled (eugenic) reproduction. And, consequently, eliminating the “worst.”

The imposition of notions onto the face is still very present, of course. Facial recognition technology—which deserves (and has motivated) many brilliant research projects in its own right—is only one manifestation of the biases encoded into how we see faces. Helfand is less interested in the mechanisms, technologies, and infrastructures of facial recognition software and more interested in the artifacts and narratives they produce.

The iPhone’s Face ID, for example, can usually (but not always) distinguish identical twins; yet it sometimes fails to uniquely identify different Asian faces. Still, China stands as a world leader in using facial recognition software for surveillance. Closer to home, your Ring doorbell collects and archives all the faces it captures (that’s really what it’s for, though it’s great that you can also see who is stealing your Amazon packages). We are becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which facial recognition doesn’t work and the ways that it does. And really, we don’t much care.


It’s not all doom and gloom though. If anything, Helfand’s touch is deft and light, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about the intertwined anecdotes and theories of the face.

There are moments of resistance: modern artists taking Galton’s idea of composite photos and turning them into reflections on what it means to be the norm; an excavation of what counts as facially foreign and why it matters to question our own assumptions; and, almost entirely visually, the truly stunning series of “passport don’ts” that tells an entire story on its own. There are also moments of great charm: the early 20th-century “Physogs” parlor game where participants use flashcards and photos to determine how good they are at reading faces, a kind of historical Cards Against Humanity or “Name that Meme.” There was even a children’s version of the game, though we’re not told exactly what was omitted for a younger crowd.

Helfand knows a huge amount, and we have to run to keep up with her. She moves quickly. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of places where the scenery flies by without enough time to digest it. That’s okay. This is an Odyssey, a not-quite-book that’s not-quite-academic.

That said, the book does serve some major theory realness, for those who need to know what The Thinkers (Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Levinas, Deleuze and Guattari) think about the face. And they aren’t the only thinkers, not even close. Helfand illustrates her own creativity in bringing together traditional philosophers with historians, anthropologists, media theorists, art historians, neuroscientists, and scholars of science and technology. How can you talk about the idea of the face without talking about nearly every kind of thinker?

Including artists. Makers. Producers of images. They too are part of the story, a huge part—sometimes told in combination, sometimes in parallel, and sometimes entirely on their own. You could read this work entirely through the images, just as you could read it entirely through the words.

In both cases, you’d learn a huge amount, and in both cases, you’d miss out. That’s one of the things that I love about this work: the form itself emphasizes the need to take seriously the visual right alongside the written, both saying versions of the same thing.

Helfand is less interested in the mechanisms, technologies, and infrastructures of facial recognition software and more interested in the artifacts and narratives they produce.

Almost none of the images are mere illustration, with one powerful exception right at the end. Helfand tells a personal anecdote (this is who I am, this is what I say about myself) about sneaking some illicit cotton candy at a fair and immediately being caught by her mother. Only upon reading the story can one make sense of the picture that just precedes it: “Girls with Cotton Candy,” found photo, 1960s. We don’t know who took the picture, or why. We don’t know the girls’ names. We don’t know if they agreed to have their pictures taken or circulated, nor do we need to, legally.

But, as Helfand primes, it could be her. It could be her friend. It could be at a fair. The wide-open mouth of the girl in the foreground could be that of a child sneaking as much as she could before she gets caught. It could be the careful enjoyment of a hard-earned treat. It could be the eagerness of new and exciting experiences. We can read a lot into those faces. But Helfand has, through her anecdote, built a story of what that image might mean, what those faces might tell us. And then we look at the faces in the image, and we think: it might be her.

We impose something on that face, without knowing very much about it at all. We are probably charmed by it, recapitulating as it does so many tropes of white western childhood. She’s cute, that girl. So is her companion. We like them. We are glad they get cotton candy. We don’t shame these girls for eating junk food, nor do we worry about the judgment they may receive or their possible reproductive futures. We want to protect these girls even as we surveil them, even as part of their futures have long passed.

We do know, if these girls lived beyond that moment, that their faces have changed, probably dramatically. That’s what time does, and that’s what technology does. (That’s also, sometimes, what medicine does: change, transplant, manipulate faces.)

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Do Images Still Help Us See?

By John Miller

That’s what faces do, and have always done. Even as the authority around faces—who gets to disseminate faces, who gets to decide what faces count as good, who gets to access the manipulated data of faces—might be changing, the value of the face as a form of connection, and the centrality of the face as relational, remains pivotal.

Helfand’s final vision of the face-in-the-now is a bit more optimistic than mine: she asks, “are we defined by our metrics?” and answers, “Hardly.” I say, “it depends who gets to define.”

But we agree that faces, and the ideas of faces, are constantly changing, constantly mediated, profoundly constructed and curated. She says, “What you think you see is not necessarily what you are going to get. Not anymore.” To which I’d respond: “as you’ve shown us, it never was.” icon

Featured image: Photograph by Joel Mott / Unsplash