5 Illusions Reveal How Portraits Can Lie

Portrait photography traverses fact and fancy

The Real Macaw
This picture of a parrot is more than it initially appears to be. Italian artist Johannes Stötter enjoys

      Johannes Stötter

transforming his human models into unexpected natural subjects, such as autumn leaves and tree frogs.

For this colorful metamorphosis, he spent four hours covering a woman with breathable paint to transform her into a scarlet macaw. The quirky fusion of painting and photography produces a kind of double portrait, first of the bird and second of the model. The effect is an ambiguous illusion, in which neuronal responses in our visual system flip back and forth between the two interpretations of the same physical stimulus.

In the preface to Dorian Gray, Wilde writes: “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” Perhaps spotting the hidden image in this photograph is not perilous, but Wilde may still have enjoyed the way this piece playfully leads the viewer to identify a human figure, challenging quick or superficial assessments.

      Ulric Collette

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree
Unlike Dorian Gray, the subjects in Quebec-based photographer Ulric Collette's Portraits Génétiques (Genetic Portraits) cannot escape the aging process or their biological destiny. The series explores the genetic similarities of family members by stitching together half-face composites of a parent and child or other family pairs, such as this mother, Julie, then age 61, and her daughter, Isabelle, then 32.

The resulting amalgam is a remarkable study of genetic fate. Known as good continuation, this perceptual phenomenon, in which we tend to perceive contiguous lines as one smooth contour, causes some viewers to see the joined portraits as one individual at two different points in his or her life span.

Before and After
Personal trainer Andrew Dixon had been irritated by the unrealistic promises of the before and after images featured in many weight-loss marketing campaigns. So he decided to take his own pictures and see what he could accomplish with “just a few easy tweaks.” In a post on the Huffington Post, Dixon explained that he chose a day when he felt especially bloated for his photo shoot. “I then shaved my head, face and chest,” he wrote. “I did a few push-ups and chin-ups, tweaked my bedroom lighting, sucked in, tightened my abs and BOOM! We got our after shot.” The photographs here document his full conversion from couch potato (far left) to totally toned (far right). The transformation took just one hour. Dixon's posturing brings to mind Wilde's quip in Dorian Gray: “Being natural is simply a pose.” It is all too easy to manufacture the perfect portrait.

Andrew Dixon



Face: The New Photographic Portrait. William A. Ewing. Thames and Hudson, 2008.

Faces: Photography and the Art of Portraiture. Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua. Focal Press, 2010.

The Creative Eye. Heather Spears. Marion Heather Spears, 2013.

Portraits Génétiques. Ulric Collette:

This article was originally published with the title "Posers and Fakers."

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