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Status: Collect > Document > Analyse > Improve
947.01 Portrait > Composite and combination prints: Portraits
The use of composite photographs has been employed in portraiture to combine groups of multiple individuals into a single image intended to capture the characteristics of the group as a whole.
Francis Galton (1822-1922), a Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, used composites and described them in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty (1883) as follows:
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 endeavour 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. 
Five years later a communication from Francis Galton was published in The Photographic News:
"I receive from time to time beautiful composite photographs made in America, and have not unfrequently received letters asking about possible or actual improvements in the process. In reply, I should like to be permitted the use of your columns to make a few remarks on the subject.
In Walter E. Woodbury's 1905 book Photographic Amusements including a Description of a Number of Novel Effects Obtainable with the Camera he includes a plate by Prof. Bowditch showing Twelve Boston Physicians and their Composite Portrait. The Composite in the Centre illustrating a practical use of the process and at the same time the possibility for gentle amusement. Lewis Hine, well known for the child labour photographs he took for the NCLC (National Child Labor Committee), also made composites of cotton mill children.
"A composite portrait is not the means of its components, but an aggregate of it, which is reduced in intensity of tint to that of one of the components. If it were a mean, its outlines would be sharp, but being an aggregate; they are not, only those shades or lines that are common to all the components are as intense, or as well defined, as they would be in an ordinary portrait, while ghosts and shades of other lines are distributed variously about. These ghosts are often too conspicuous. Those that affect the [natures?] are especially due either to differences in the relative breadth and width of the component faces, or to a want of symmetry in some of them which causes the straight line that passes as nearly as maybe along the eyebrows to be inclined to that which passes between the lips in the composites I have thus far made, I have merely attended to keeping the vertical distance between the eyes and the parting of the lips at exactly the same length in all cases, and to making the best fit of the remainder that each case severally admitted. It strikes me now that it would be well worth while to vary the whole procedure by attempting to approximate to a mean result, and in the following way. First, find by measuring the portraits about to be combined, the proportion that the distance between the pupils bears on the average of all of them to the vertical distance between the pupils of the eyes and the parting of the lips; then optically transform every component portrait into that same average proportion. Secondly, straighten every face that asymmetrical in the way above described, into a symmetrical one. Lastly, make the composite from the transformed portraits.
"I suspect that a pinhole camera would be found perfectly suitable for effecting these transformations, if the component portraits were not too small. A portrait of sufficient size could, by a single operation, be reduced by its means to any desired scale, both in breadth and in width, independently of each other, namely, by the ingenious device I saw lately in your columns, but cannot specify where, of replacing the pinhole by a vertical slit in one movable diaphragm, and an horizontal slit in another. The asymmetry could at the same time be remedied by so inclining the portrait to the optical axis of the camera as to foreshorten the side that was too long. Foreshortening is accompanied by no blur or image in a pinhole camera.
"The sliding adjustments of the camera would have to be graduated, and each portrait measured carefully by laying a glass scale upon it, and using a low power lens. After this had been done, a table calculated once for all for the camera would tell at what graduations of distance and of inclination the portrait should be set, in order to obtain the desired result.
"The transformations I propose are small in amount. They are always made, and we unconsciously witness them, whenever the person at whom we are looking holds his face a little inclined from full-face view. But, small as they are, I think they are worth making. I have not now got my photographic things in working order, and am busied in other ways, so I speak for the most part theoretically; but not wholly so, as I have made some optical experiments which corroborate, so far as they go, the feasibility and advantage of what has just been said."
Periodically this technique is "rediscovered" and examples can be seen in the work of Nancy Burson, Philippe Halsman and Ken Kitano. With digital processing it has become easier and now many thousands of portraits can be combined to create a single composite.
- Λ Francis Galton, 1883, Inquiries into Human Faculty, (London: Macmillan & Co.), p. 344
- Λ April 27, 1888, "Composite portraiture: A communication from Francis Galton", The Photographic News, vol. 32, no. 1547, p. 237
- Λ Walter E. Woodbury, 1905, Photographic Amusements including a Description of a Number of Novel Effects Obtainable with the Camera, (New York: The Photographic Times Publishing Association), fig. 84, pl. 1
- Λ For the context of Lewis Hine's work with the NCLC there are multiple studies including - Judith Mara Gutman, 1967, Lewis W. Hine and the American Social Conscience, (New York: Walker); Walter Rosenblum et al., 1977, America and Lewis Hine: Photographs, 1904–1940, (New York: Aperture); Daile Kaplan (ed.), 1992, Photo Story: Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis Hine, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press); Alison Nordström & Elizabeth McCausland, 2012, Lewis Hine, (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.)
- Λ For examples by Lewis Hine - "Composite photograph of child laborers made from cotton mill children" see the Library of Congress examples of his 1913 NCLC - National Child Labor Committee composites:
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-02737 (color digital file from b&w original print) LC-USZ62-107782 (b&w film copy negative)
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-02738 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Fineman, Mia, 2012, Faking it: Manipulated photography before Photoshop, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art) isbn-10: 0300185014 isbn-13: 978-0300185010 [Distributed by Yale University Press] [Δ]
Galton, Francis, 1879, ‘Composite Portraits‘, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. 8, pp. 132-142 [Δ]
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan - firstname.lastname@example.org
Nancy Burson (1948-) • Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) • Philippe Halsman (1906-1979) • Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940) • Ken Kitano
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