Once I was walking down the street and passed by Salman Rushdie – he’s taller, stockier and, ahem, not as cute as me, but there are many facial similarities. We looked at each other as though in a mirror and for a moment I thought maybe it was me. Weird. Just the other week, I could swear I saw my son and his girl friend walking across the street; I ran over and came within a few feet of them when I realized it wasn’t them at all (another mirage, perhaps), despite the almost exact appearances. And then a few nights ago, while waiting for my wife on a street corner, I ran over to a woman with the intention of hugging what, in fact, turned out to be a complete stranger who, in the dim evening light of NYC, looked exactly like her, albeit Asian. I’ve always wondered, how many separated-at-birth-doppelgangers there are in the world. Those people with facial characteristics so similar that it stands to reason that at sometime in world history, their genetic codes crossed paths (thanks Cossacks!). It makes sense to me that there are only so many facial configurations to go around. There just have to be duplicates, even triplicates in the world.
I think of faces often. What faces say about people’s character or behavior that goes deeper than the superficial qualities. Some geneticists insist certain features signal certain good and bad behaviors. In the pseudo-science of eugenics facial structures are deemed proof of mental superiority and inferiority. Yet how then, with just a slight alteration (from age or surgery or whatever), can a familiar face can be made magically unfamiliar or how can faces that look so truly familiar belong to completely unknown people. The face is an incredible part of the body — so charged with power, allure and identity — it is not just great but important that Jessica Helfand has written a unique book that looks at the face in the face.
Simply titled Face: A Visual Odyssey (MIT Press) is a sociological, psychological, historical and phenomenological study of one of the human body’s most critical designs. Yes, the face is a design object. Addressing the cultural significance of the face through a critical lens, both as social currency and blank slate, Ms. Helfand’s curiosity covers everything from the design of historical portraits to Instagram posts, from police mugshots to official state portraits, examining how interpretation of the face and facial expression has changed over time; how it has been usurped and weaponized and how we have reclaimed it for good and evil. From vintage advertisements for a “nose adjuster” to contemporary artists who reconsider the visual construction of race, Face investigates the power of the punim to repulse, hypnotize, express and depress — a deep dive into our most visible asset with the intelligence and wit of one of our our most astute design-culture authors and scholars.
It is the perfect gift for those who need to face facts, and do so through a blemish-fee guide of face facts. Beautifully designed and smartly written by Ms Helfand, this book is a unique view of the visage as image and beyond.