Physiognomy studies: Scanfaces

Physiognomy—from the ancient Greek, gnomos (character) and physis (nature), hence “the character of one’s nature”—

In the early 1600s, Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta, considered the father of physiognomy, was instrumental in spreading ideas about character and appearance in Europe. Della Porta came up with the idea for physiognomy through his alchemical experiments, in which he attempted to boil down and distill from substances their “tincture,” or pure essence. He made an analogy to the human essence, suggesting that one could deduce an individual’s character from empirical observation of his physical features.

In the second half of the 18th century, Johann Caspar Lavater became the new king of physiognomy. He blended an examination of silhouette, the profile, portraiture, and proportions into his best-selling book, Essays on Physiognomy,

Waldorf, S. Iris, Getty Institute. 2012

Goya found in physiognomy a scientific base to attach personality features into his satirical portraits. Following these interests, I have been portraying people through a playful and absurd process. In it, instead of using rational thinking to link personality characteristics and faces, it has been used irrationality and randomness to process pictures which suggest stories that are absolutely not related to the personality of the character.

The Scanfaces are made by pressing the face of a person onto the flatbed scanner, whilst moving the head when the optical sensor moves. The more pressed the face, the flatter the result. The process of portraying Scanfaces starts by sitting the portrayed on a chair or making him/her kneeling on the ground. As the artist needs to take control of the process, he holds the head with his hand while the portrayed has to hold the breath. For a moment, the artist owns that head, using it as an object, squeezing and strongly pressing it onto the flatbed scanner until the result shows up on the screen.  The reactions of the portrayed were very varied: from being amused, scared or even aroused.



Joan Fontcuberta, Hasselblad Award winner 2013 doing a Scanface.


The portraits show images between a stupid caricature and a terrible nightmare. A bittersweet image. A Scanface.

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Scanface on the press: