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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

5 Illusions Reveal How Portraits Can Lie

Portrait photography traverses fact and fancy


LOOK-ALIKE SOLUTION: The first photograph from the left on the bottom row features the real twin pair.


FRANÇOIS BRUNELLE (doppelgängers); RON LEVINE Getty Images (twins)

There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. —Richard Avedon (1923–2004)

Portraiture as an art form strives to capture its subject's innermost nature. Therefore, a successful portrait may be more veridical, or truthful, than casual observation of the individual depicted. Although accurate representation is intrinsic to photography, the illusions featured in this article circumvent limitations that are skin deep. They dive for the heart of the matter. In that sense, these portraits are “the most magical of mirrors,” as Oscar Wilde described the supernatural painting in his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray remains young and untouched while his portrait in his attic degrades to depict the character's true age and moral depravity. In Wilde's words, as the picture “had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.”

The subjects portrayed in the following images are Dorian Gray's heirs. They are not merely likenesses but instead tell deeper stories about how easily looks can deceive. Some of these images present duplicitous doubles; others morph two beings into one. The only magic required here, however, is locked within your brain's visual and cognitive systems. Can you decide who the original is and who is the reflection?

The Look-Alike Project
Susana's grandmother used to say that every person has a doppelgänger, a genetically unrelated twin living elsewhere on the planet, whom most people never get to meet. Canadian photographer François Brunelle has set out to immortalize such accidental pairings in an international exhibit featuring 200 unconnected couples. When Susana learned about Brunelle's project, entitled I'm Not a Look-Alike!, she thought immediately of her graduate student Francisco Costela and his buddy Joshua Corrigan, pictured in the photograph on the top row, at the far left. Fran (left) and Josh (right) met at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where they still cross paths, and became fast friends. They are not related—Fran is a Spaniard, and Josh is an American—but the similarities are uncanny. Even their glasses are identical (entirely coincidental, they say). Fran and Josh's stunning resemblance produces double takes among their friends and colleagues on an almost daily basis.

We encouraged Fran and Josh to contact Brunelle and were tickled to learn that the photographer was not only excited to feature the two of them in his project, but he had also selected the pair to participate in an Inside Edition TV special about Brunelle's look-alikes. Here we have lined up five sets of Brunelle's accidental “twins,” including Fran and Josh, with a true set of twins. See if you can spot the genuine identical pair.


Baby Faces
Could an artist's portrait, like Wilde's fictional painting, capture a resemblance more accurately than a photograph? Canadian artist Heather Spears, who resides in Denmark, thinks so. Spears has spent many years sketching premature and other threatened babies in neonatal intensive care units.

While creating portraits of these and other infants, Spears identified a curious phenomenon. She found that when she strove to copy the photograph (left) of a child exactly, she was unsatisfied with the results. “When I instinctively broadened it—trying to ‘get’ a likeness—it did [resemble the infant],” Spears says. Parents generally agree that the enhanced depictions (right) seem most correct.

Spears attributes the success of these portraits to envisioning the baby as though she were looking at the child with two eyes and at very close range rather than through a camera lens. Another reason might be that viewers approach photographs and line drawings differently. Our perception readily adjusts for illumination and shadow when looking at a photograph but not when observing the crisp boundaries in contour drawings. Spears's distortion approximates the outcome of our neuronal processes when we view someone in person. In addition, the final depiction softens features in a flattering way that may feel more true to the parents' memories than the original picture.
 

Heather Spears

 

Changes from photo to sketch:

▪Ear and head outlines are broader

▪Baby's eyes are set farther apart

▪Nostrils appear slightly angled


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