Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/August 1878/Composite Portraits

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I SUBMIT to the Anthropological Institute my first results in carrying out a process that I suggested last August in my Presidential Address to the Anthropological Subsection of the British Association at Plymouth, in the following words:

"Having obtained drawings or photographs of several persons alike in most respects, but differing in minor details, what sure method is there of extracting the typical characteristics from them? I may mention a plan which had occurred both to Mr. Herbert Spencer and myself, the principle of which is to superimpose optically the various drawings and to accept the aggregate result. Mr. Spencer suggested to me in conversation that the drawings reduced to the same scale might be traced on separate pieces of transparent paper and secured one upon another, and then held between the eye and the light. I have attempted this with some success. My own idea was, to throw faint images of the several portraits, in succession, upon the same sensitized photographic plate. I may add that it is perfectly easy to superimpose optically two portraits by means of a stereoscope, and that a person who is used to handle instruments will find a common double eye-glass fitted with stereoscopic lenses to be almost as effectual and far handier than the boxes sold in shops."

Mr. Spencer, as he informed me, had actually devised an instrument, many years ago, for tracing mechanically longitudinal, transverse, and horizontal sections of heads on transparent paper, intending to superimpose them and to obtain an average result by transmitted light.

Since my address was published, I have caused trials to be made, and have found as a matter of fact that the photographic process of which I there spoke enables us to obtain with mechanical precision a generalized picture; one that represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary figure, possessing the average features of any given group of men. These ideal faces have a surprising air of reality. Nobody who glanced at one of them for the first time would doubt its being the likeness of a living person. Yet, as I have said, it is no such thing; it is the portrait of a type, and not of an individual.

I begin by collecting photographs of the persons with whom I propose to deal. They must be similar in attitude and size, but no exactness is necessary in either of these respects. Then by a simple contrivance I make two pinholes in each of them, to enable me to hang them up one in front of the other, like a pack of cards, upon the same pair of pins, in such a way that the eyes of all the portraits shall be as nearly as possible superimposed; in which case the remainder of the features will also be superimposed nearly enough. These pinholes correspond to what are technically known to printers as "register-marks." They are easily made; a slip of brass or card has an aperture cut out of its middle, and threads are stretched from opposite sides, making a cross.

PSM V13 D477 Step one in assembling a composite photograph.jpg
Fig. 1.

Two small holes are drilled in the plate, one on either side of the aperture. The slip of brass is laid on the portrait with the aperture over its face. It is turned about until one of the cross-threads cuts the pupils of both the eyes, and it is further adjusted until the other thread divides the interval between the pupils in two equal parts. Then it is held firmly, and a prick is made through each of the holes. The portraits being thus arranged, a photographic camera is directed upon them. Suppose there are eight portraits in the pack, and that under existing circumstances it would require an exposure of eighty seconds to give an exact photographic copy of any one of them. The general principle of proceeding is this, subject in practice to some variation of details, depending on the different brightness of the several portraits: We throw the image of each of the eight portraits in turn upon the same part of the sensitized plate for ten seconds. Thus, portrait No. 1

PSM V13 D478 Composites assembled for photography.jpg
Fig. 2.

is in the front of the pack; we take the cap off the object-glass of the camera for ten seconds, and afterward replace it. We then remove No. 1 from the pins, and No. 2 appears in the front; we take off the cap a second time for ten seconds, and again replace it. Next we remove No. 2, and No. 3 appears in the front, which we treat as its predecessors, and so we go on to the last of the pack. The sensitized plate will now have had its total exposure of eighty seconds; it is then developed, and the print taken from it is the generalized picture of which I speak. It is a composite of eight component portraits. Those of its outlines are sharpest and darkest that are common to the largest number of the components; the purely individual peculiarities leave little or no visible trace. The latter being necessarily disposed equally on both sides of the average, the outline of the composite is the average of all the components. It is a band, and not a fine line, because the outlines of the components are seldom exactly superimposed. The band will be darkest in its middle whenever the component portraits have the same general type of features, and its breadth or amount of blur will measure the tendency of the components to deviate from the common type. This is so for the very same reason that the shot-marks on a target are more thickly disposed near the bull's-eye than away from it, and in a greater degree as the marksmen are more skillful. All that has been said of the outlines is equally true as regards the shadows; the result being that the composite represents an averaged figure, whose lineaments have been softly drawn. The eyes come out with appropriate distinctness, owing to the mechanical conditions under which the components were hung.

A composite portrait represents the picture that would rise before the mind's eye of a man who had the gift of pictorial imagination in an exalted degree. But the imaginative power even of the highest artists is far from precise, and is so apt to be biased by special cases that may have struck their fancies, that no two artists agree in any of their typical forms. The merit of the photographic composite is its mechanical precision, being subject to no errors beyond those incidental to all photographic productions.

I submit several composites made for me by Mr. H. Reynolds. The first set of portraits are those of criminals convicted of murder, manslaughter, or robbery accompanied with violence. It will be observed that the features of the composites are much better looking than those of the components. The special villainous irregularities in the latter have disappeared, and the common humanity that underlies them has prevailed. They represent, not the criminal, but the man who is liable to fall into crime. All composites are better looking than their components, because the averaged portrait of many persons is free from the irregularities that variously blemish the looks of each of them. I selected these for my first trials because I happened to possess a large collection of photographs of criminals through the kindness of Sir Edmund Du Cane, the Director-General of Prisons, for the purpose of investigating criminal types. They were peculiarly adapted to my present purpose, being all made of about the same size and taken in much the same attitudes. It was while endeavoring to elicit the principal criminal types by methods of optical superimposition of the portraits, such as I had frequently employed with maps and meteorological traces,[2] that the idea of composite figures first occurred to me.

The other set of composites are made from pairs of components. They are selected to show the extraordinary facility of combining almost any two faces whose proportions are in any way similar.

It will, I am sure, surprise most persons to see how well-defined these composites are. When we deal with faces of the same type, the points of similarity far outnumber those of dissimilarity, and there is a much greater resemblance between faces generally than we who turn our attention to individual differences are apt to appreciate. A traveler, on his first arrival among people of a race very different from his own, thinks them closely alike, and a Hindoo has much difficulty in distinguishing one Englishman from another.

The fairness with which photographic composites represent their components is shown by six of the specimens. I wished to learn whether the order in which the components were photographed made any material difference in the result, so I had three of the portraits arranged successively in each of their six possible combinations. It will be observed that four at least of the six composites are closely alike. I should say that in each of this set the last of the three components was always allowed a longer exposure than the second, and the second than the first, but it is found better to allow an equal time to all of them.

The stereoscope, as I stated last August in my address at Plymouth, affords a very easy method of optically superimposing two portraits, and I have much pleasure in quoting the following letter, pointing out this fact as well as some other conclusions at which I also had arrived. The

PSM V13 D480 Composite of a photo and engraving.jpg
Fig. 3.
The accompanying woodcut is as fair a representation of one of the composites as is practicable in ordinary printing. It was photographically transferred to the wood, and the engraver has used his best endeavor to translate the shades into line engraving. This composite is made out of only three components, and its threefold origin is to be traced in the ears, and in the buttons to the vest. To the best of my judgment the original photograph is a very exact average of its components; not one feature in it appears identical with that of any one of them, but it contains a resemblance to all, and is not more like to one of them than to another. However, the judgment of the wood-engraver is different. His rendering of the composite has made it exactly like one of its components, which, it must be borne in mind, he had never seen. It is just as though an artist drawing a child had produced a portrait closely resembling its deceased father, having overlooked an equally strong likeness to its deceased mother, which was apparent to its relatives. This is to me a most striking proof that the composite is a true combination. (I trust that the beauty of the woodcut will not be much diminished by the necessarily coarse process of newspaper-printing.)

letter was kindly forwarded to me by Mr. Darwin; it is dated last November, and was written to him by Mr. A. L. Austin from New Zealand, thus affording another of the many curious instances of two persons being independently engaged in the same novel inquiry at nearly the same time, and coming to similar results:

"Invercargill, New Zealand, November 6, 1877. 
To Charles Darwin, Esq.

"Sir: Although a perfect stranger to you, and living on the reverse side of the globe, I have taken the liberty of writing to you on a small discovery I have made in binocular vision in the stereoscope. I find by taking two ordinary carte-de-visite photos of two different persons' faces, the portraits being about the same sizes, and looking about the same direction, and placing them in a stereo-scope, the faces blend into one in a most remarkable manner, producing in the case of some ladies' portraits in every instance a decided improvement in beauty. The pictures were not taken in a binocular camera, and therefore do not stand out well, but, by moving one or both until the eyes coincide in the stereoscope, the pictures blend perfectly. If taken in a binocular camera for the purpose, each person being taken on one-half of the negative, I am sure the results would be still more striking. Perhaps something might be made of this in regard to the expression of emotions in man and the lower animals, etc. I have not time or opportunities to make experiments, but it seems to me something might be made of this by photographing the faces of different animals, different races of mankind, etc. I think a stereoscopic view of one of the ape tribe and some low-caste human face would make a very curious mixture; also in the matter of crossing of animals and the resulting offspring. It seems to me something also might result in photos of husband and wife and children, etc. In any case the results are curious, if it leads to nothing else. Should this come to anything, you will no doubt acknowledge myself as suggesting the experiment, and perhaps send me some of the results. If not likely to come to anything, a reply would much oblige me. Yours very truly,

"A. L. Austin, C. E., F. R. A. S."

Dr. Carpenter informs me that the late Mr. Appold, the mechanician, used to combine two portraits of himself, under the stereoscope. The one had been taken from an assumed stern expression, the other with a smile, and this combination produced a curious and effective blending of the two.

Convenient as the stereoscope is, owing to its accessibility, for determining whether any two portraits are suitable in size and attitude to form a good composite, it is nevertheless a makeshift and imperfect way of attaining the required result. It cannot of itself combine two images; it can only place them so that the office of attempting to combine them may be undertaken by the brain. Now the two separate impressions received by the brain through the stereoscope do not seem to me to be relatively constant in their vividness, but sometimes the image seen by the left eye prevails over that seen by the right, and vice versa. All the other instruments I am about to describe accomplish that which the stereoscope fails to do; they create true optical combinations. As regards other points in Mr. Austin's letter, I cannot think that the use of a binocular camera for taking the two portraits intended to be combined into one by the stereoscope would be of importance. All that is wanted is that the portraits should be nearly of the same size. In every other respect I cordially agree with Mr. Austin.

The best instrument I have as yet contrived and used for optical superimposition is a "double-image prism" of Iceland spar. The latest that I have had were procured for me by Mr. Tisley, optician, 172 Brompton Road. It has a clear aperture of a square, half an inch in the side, and when held at right angles to the line of sight will separate the ordinary and extraordinary images to the amount of two inches, when the object viewed is held at seventeen inches from the eye. This is quite sufficient for working with carte-de-visite portraits. One image is quite achromatic, the other shows a little color. The divergence may be varied and adjusted by inclining the prism to the line of sight. By its means the ordinary image of one component is thrown upon the extraordinary image of the other, and the composite may be viewed with the naked eye or through a lens of long focus, or through an opera-glass (a telescope is not so good) fitted with a sufficiently long draw-tube to see an object at that short distance with distinctness. Portraits

PSM V13 D482 Photo engraving apparatus.jpg
Fig. 4.
Fig. 5. Fig. 6.
Fig. 4 shows the simple apparatus which carries the prism, and on which the photograph is mounted. The former is set in a round box which can be rotated in the ring at the end of the arm, and can be clamped when adjusted. The arm can be rotated, and can also be pulled out or in if desired, and clamped. The floor of the instrument is overlaid with cork covered with black cloth, on which the components can easily be fixed by drawing-pins. When using it one portrait is pinned down and the other is moved near to it, overlapping its margin if necessary, until the eye looking through the prism sees the required combination; then the second portrait is pinned down also. It may now receive its register-marks from needles fixed in a hinged arm, and this is a more generally applicable method than the plan with cross-threads, already described, as any desired feature—the nose, the ear, or the hand may thus be selected for composite purposes. Let A, B, C, . . . Y, Z, be the components. A is pinned down, and B, C. . . . Y, Z, are successively combined with A, and registered. Then, before removing Z, take away A and substitute any other of the already registered portraits, say B, by combining it with Z; lastly, remove Z and substitute A by combining it with B, and register it.
Fig. 5 shows one of three similarly-jointed arms, which clamp on to the vertical rod. Two of these carry a light frame covered with cork and cloth, and the other carries Fig. 6, which is a frame having lenses of different powers set into it, and on which, or on the third frame, a small mirror, inclined at 45°, may be laid. When a portrait requires foreshortening it can be pinned on one of these frames and be inclined to the line of sight; when it is smaller than its fellow it can be brought nearer to the eye and an appropriate lens interposed; when a right-sided profile has to be combined with a left-handed one, it must be pinned on one of the frames and viewed by reflection from the mirror in the other. (The apparatus I have drawn is roughly made, and, being chiefly of wood, is rather clumsy, but it acts well.)

of somewhat different sizes may be combined by placing the larger one farther from the eye, and a long face may be fitted to a short one by inclining and foreshortening the former. The slight fault of focus thereby occasioned produces little or no sensible ill-effect on the appearance of the composite.

The front and profile faces of two living persons sitting side by side or one behind the other, can be easily superimposed by a double-image prism. Two such prisms, set one behind the other, can be made to give four images of equal brightness, occupying the four corners of a rhombus whose acute angles are 45°. Three prisms will give eight images; but this is practically not a good combination, the images fail in distinctness, and are too near together for use. Again, each lens of a stereoscope of long focus can have one or a pair of these prisms attached to it, and four or eight images may be thus combined.

Another instrument I have made consists of a piece of glass inclined at a very acute angle to the line of sight, and of a mirror beyond it, also inclined, but in the opposite direction to the line of sight. Two rays of light will therefore reach the eye from each point of the glass; the one has been reflected from its surface, and the other has been first reflected from the mirror, and then transmitted through the glass. The glass used should be extremely thin, to avoid the blur due to double reflections; it may be a selected piece from those made to cover microscopic specimens. The principle of the instrument may be further developed by interposing additional pieces of glass successively less inclined to the line of sight, and each reflecting a different portrait.

I have tried many other plans; indeed, the possible methods of optically superimposing two or more images are very numerous. Thus I have used a sextant (with its telescope attached); also strips of mirrors placed at different angles and their several reflections simultaneously viewed through a telescope. I have also used a divided lens, like two stereoscopic lenses brought close together, in front of the object-glass of a telescope.

I have not yet had an opportunity of superimposing images by placing glass negatives in separate magic-lanterns, all converging upon the same screen; but this or even a simple dioramic apparatus would be very suitable for exhibiting composite effects to an audience, and if the electric light were used for illumination, the effect on the screen could be photographed at once. It would also be possible to construct a camera with a long focus, and many slightly-divergent object-glasses, each throwing an image of a separate glass negative upon the same sensitized plate.

The uses of composite portraits are many. They give us typical pictures of different races of men, if derived from a large number of individuals of those races taken at random. An assurance of the truth of any of our pictorial deductions is to be looked for in their substantial agreement when different batches of components have been dealt with, this being a perfect test of truth in all statistical conclusions. Again, we may select prevalent or strongly-marked types from among the men of the same race, just as I have done with two of the types of criminals by which this memoir is illustrated.

Another use of this process is to obtain by photography a really good likeness of a living person. The inferiority of photographs to the best works of artists, so far as resemblance is concerned, lies in their catching no more than a single expression. If many photographs of a person were taken at different times, perhaps even years apart, their composite would possess that in which a single photograph is deficient. I have already pointed out the experience of Mr. Appold to this effect. The analytical tendency of the mind is so strong that, out of any tangle of superimposed outlines, it persists in dwelling preferably on some one of them, singling it out and taking little heed of the rest. On one occasion it will select one outline, on another a different one. Looking at the patterns of the papered walls of our room we see, whenever our fancy is active, all kinds of forms and features; we often catch some strange combination which we are unable to recall on a subsequent occasion, while later still it may suddenly flash full upon us. A composite portrait would have much of this varied suggestiveness.

A further use of the process would be to produce, from many independent portraits of an historical personage, the most probable likeness of him. Contemporaneous statues, medals, and gems, would be very suitable for the purpose, photographs being taken of the same size, and a composite made from them. It will be borne in mind that it is perfectly easy to apportion different "weights" to the different components. Thus, if one statue be judged to be so much more worthy of reliance than another that it ought to receive double consideration in the composite, all that is necessary is to double either the time of its exposure or its illumination.

The last use of the process that I shall mention is of great interest as regards inquiries into the hereditary transmission of features, as it enables us to compare the average features of the product with those of the parentage. A composite of all the brothers and sisters in a large family would be an approximation to what the average of the product would probably be if the family were indefinitely increased in number, but the approximation would be closer if we also took into consideration those of the cousins who inherited the family likeness. As regards the parentage, it is by no means sufficient to take a composite of the two parents; the four grandparents and the uncles and aunts on both sides should be also included. Some statistical inquiries I published on the distribution of ability in families[3] give provisional data for determining the weight to be assigned in the composite to the several degrees of relationship. I should, however, not follow those figures in the present case, but would rather suggest for the earlier trials, first to give equal "weights" to the male and female sides; thus the father and a brother of the male parent would count equally with the father and a brother of the female parent. Secondly, I should "weight" each parent as 4, and each grandparent and each uncle and aunt as 1; again, I should weight each brother and sister as 4, and each of those cousins as 1 who inherited any part of the likeness of the family in question. The other cousins I should disregard. The weights, as previously mentioned, would be bestowed by giving proportionate periods of exposure.[4]

Composites on this principle would undoubtedly aid the breeders of animals to judge of the results of any proposed union better than they are able to do at present, and in forecasting the results of marriages between men and women they would be of singular interest and instruction. Much might be learned merely by the frequent use of the double-image prism, as described above, which enables us to combine the features of living individuals when sitting side by side into a single image.

I have as yet had few opportunities of developing the uses of the composite photographic process, it being difficult without much explanation to obtain the requisite components. Indeed, the main motive of my publishing these early results is to afford that explanation, and to enable me to procure a considerable variety of materials to work upon. I especially want sets of family photographs, all as nearly as possible of the same size and taken in the same attitudes. The size I would suggest for family composites is that which gives one-half of an inch interval between the pupil of the eye and the line that separates the two lips. The attitudes about which there can be no mistake are: full face, an exact profile, say, always showing the right side of the face, and an exact three-quarters, always showing the left; in this, the outer edge of the right eyelid will be only just in sight. In each case the latter should look straight before him. Such portraits as these go well into cartes de visite, and I trust that not a few amateur photographers may be inclined to make sets of all the members of their family, young and old, and of both sexes, and to try composites of them on the principles I have described. The photographs used for that purpose need not be in the least injured, for the register marks may be made in the case into which they are slipped, and not in the photographs themselves.—Nature.

  1. Abstract of a paper read before the London Anthropological Institute, April 30, 1878.
  2. "Conference at the Loan Exhibition of Scientific Instruments," 1878. Chapman & Hall. Physical Geography Section, p. 312. "On Means of combining Various Data in Maps and Diagrams," by Francis Galton, F. R. S.
  3. "Hereditary Genius," p. 317. Column D. Macmillan, 1869.
  4. Example: There are 5 brothers or sisters and 5 cousins whose portraits are available; the total period of desired exposure is 100 seconds. 5 x 4 + 5 = 25; 10025 = 4; which gives 4 x 4 = 16 seconds for each brother or sister, and 4 seconds for each cousin (5 x 16 + 5 x 4 = 100).