Phase Change
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Phase Change

Portrait, with Data

In the age of data, what will a new generation of artists say about us?

From the time humans first roamed the earth, we have created portraits. Paleolithic man left handprints at Lascaux (seen above) more than forty thousand years ago. Currently on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, London, is Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, through which the Turner Prize-winning artist explores the negotiations we are all involved in, unconsciously or otherwise, around who we feel we are and how we are seen.” Representing ourselves accurately and truthfully is the work of a lifetime, and never before has that responsibility been more abounding with possibilities and preteritions.

What we perceive and understand of most people from history often differs from their portraits — objects and images created by artists whose job it is to honor and memorialize those deemed worthy of remembrance. What we sometimes forget is that artistic license exerts a strong influence over those perceptions and it should be acknowledged that what’s left out or altered is often as important as what has been described.

Snapchat processes more than 350 million photos every day.

A child born in 2015 can reasonably expect to have tens of thousands of images of herself captured over a lifetime. These won’t just be selfies and school pictures, but also CCTV images, facial scans, digital captures, as well as myriad opportunities for being a random, non-consenting face in a crowd. That same child might also accumulate an incalculable amount of personal data, which will be sorted, queried, embedded, digitized, appropriated and otherwise manipulated over that lifetime, some with her permission, but just as likely without her having any awareness or control of it at all.

Data informs the portrait of a contemporary human life. Which begs the question — which data most accurately describe the essence of that life? It seems the chance for manipulating or massaging our personal data is falling farther and farther outside our reach. Does that make for a more factual, realistic or clear picture of an individual, or does it ultimately cloud our perceptions, due to the malleable nature of our own personal habits and foibles?

At the turn of the twentieth century, an American artist, John Singer Sargent became the darling of the first Gilded Age. He was in high demand — from Boston and New York, to London, Paris and Rome. He could set up a studio in any large metropolitan city and the commissions would roll in. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be painted by Sargent. He was the best and brightest of his age.

Sargent was immensely popular because besides being a highly accomplished painter of people, he also took pleasure in painting his subjects in ways that were unexpected and sometimes a bit risqué. He painted Mr and Mrs I. N. Phelps Stokes in their tennis attire, as if they had just popped over from a sporting afternoon in the park, a sheen of perspiration adding a glow to Edith’s face. In an age when one only wore one’s best for a portrait, this seemed an odd choice for the couple, but Sargent beautifully captured their youthful vitality and progressive civic idealism by insisting they dress more casually.

Sargent’s portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, née Virginie Amélie Avegno (in a picture which became known as Portrait of Madame X) may be his best known work. Depicting her with a dress strap slipping from her shoulder, her alabaster skin exposed, the painting was considered indecent by visitors to the Paris Salon of 1884. Though Madame and her husband had no problem with the depiction, and considered it an image which accurately captured Mme Gautreau’s daring personality, critics thought it tasteless and lewd for its frank depiction of sensual and sexual power. Sargent reluctantly repainted the dress strap, kept the painting for himself, then sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art thirty years later, telling them he thought it one of his best works.

French poet and historical novelist Judith Gautier observed of the portrait, “Is it a woman? a chimera, the figure of a unicorn rearing as on a heraldic coat of arms or perhaps the work of some oriental decorative artist to whom the human form is forbidden and who, wishing to be reminded of woman, has drawn the delicious arabesque? No, it is none of these things, but rather the precise image of a modern woman scrupulously drawn by a painter who is a master of his art.”

Sargent enjoyed taking the time to capture the full reality of his subjects and to portray them as living people with blood running through their veins. Both the aristocracy and the nouveau riche were willing to pay the highest prices to see themselves portrayed in the fullness and vibrancy of their lives. Not surprisingly, everyone looked amazing. Sargent aimed to find the essence of his subjects — his technical skills (and they were impressive) were no match for his ability to bring forth the humanness of his sitters, who more often than not were pleased with their portrayals, even when they didn’t evince an entirely accurate physical representation.

For most of us, our close personal data is curated to please ourselves and our friends and family; we share what we like with little concern for how the wider world may judge or perceive it. In the present day, our representations of self are vast and probably quite complex and diverse, yet increasingly incomplete or fragmented. What we choose to share with some, is probably, possibly, hopefully, obscured for others. What is captured from us without our permission is of an unknowable quantity and probably has far-reaching consequences that, at present, could potentially remain obscured from us forever. We are not currently in control of our data selves and may never be.

In the new gilded age of the twenty-first century artists are once again returning to rendering hyper-detailed, highly technical visions of the movers and shakers of our times. Image is everything. This time though, the stakes are a little different. Our digital lives have become the historical record that defines us, often without our explicit consent. As we toil away at being born, going to school, getting jobs, buying things and creating ever more data, the gods and goddesses of the digital world are curating their full-blooded portraits in a way that would make Sargent nod with glowing appreciation.

In her book, The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (MIT Press, 2014) Judith Donath defines data portraits as “depictions of people made by visualizing data by and about them.” Unlike portraits of the past, data portraits don’t require direct human interaction between the artist who is creating the work, and the subject. It has become quite easy to craft an image of an individual by accessing their personal data, with, or without their permission.

Take, for example Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions project. Finding and documenting found objects in the street, such as, hair, cigarette butts and chewing gum, Dewey-Hagborg extracted samples of DNA from those objects and sequenced it to sort for information about eye and hair color, ancestry and gender. Using specialized software, a digital facial approximation was produced from the genetic information, then fed to a 3D printer to make a portrait based solely on the DNA samples’ probable ratios. How accurately those portraits represent the people whose DNA was taken is not known. Through her work, Dewey-Hagborg asks us to become more aware of the use of biological surveillance and its growing impact on the increasingly fuzzy legal definitions of data ownership and indirectly, the potentially inaccurate representations that our personal data may offer about us.

A different case is that of Justin Beiber’s Calvin Klein underwear ads. After images were initially released from an early 2015 photo shoot, a second image of The Beibs was released, purportedly an original, un-retouched image. The truth actually lay somewhere in the middle, in that the “un-retouched” version was an equally manipulated image made to show Bieber as less muscular and well-endowed than can be clearly seen in his own personal Instagram. Since photoshopping even Instagram images is fairly common, especially amongst celebrities, it seems clear the only way to determine Beiber’s genuine physique is to see him in the flesh, perhaps optimally in his Calvins.

Unfortunately, it is not only representations of our images which are being appropriated and used without our consent, and it isn’t just artists who wish to describe us to the world at large. Almost everyone has a credit score, which is a portrait in many ways, one, which in most cases, we haven’t any real control over. What do you look like to your bank, your mortgage lender or your potential employer? All of them have access to your data, and can create a story about your life, behaviors and practices based on their predictive models, which may, or may not be accurate to you.

Crystal, is a new app which “analyzes public data to tell you how you can expect any given person to behave, how he or she wants to be spoken to, and perhaps more importantly, what you can expect your relationship to be like.” Crystal uses algorithms to discern personality traits from a person’s communication style in their LinkedIn profile, emails or other public messages. Is it accurate? Who knows, but there are probably plenty of people who will defer to its algorithmic logic in preference over actual human interaction. Will we now have to become more responsive to algorithms, trying to guess which of our traits we most need to modify to present a more pleasing (or engineered) countenance?

Students and young adults especially are constantly reminded to take care of their social media for fear that some seemingly innocent public outburst, picture, post or tweet might forever brand them as a terrorist, racist, misogynist, thug, alcoholic, slut or any other number of potentially career-ending impeachments. This necessity to curate our lives has become an increasingly onerous task, and one that, in many instances isn’t nearly as opaque and foolproof as it should be. Those who want to know our unedited details rarely have any trouble accessing them. The European Union’s “right to be forgotten” law is a relatively recent attempt to allow us to extricate ourselves from unpleasant or troublesome information we don’t want others to know, but is generally perceived as an untenable and unmanageable behemoth of legislation that will never work over the long term.

The prosperous, on the other hand have at their disposal the services of identity management and data washing firms which are well paid to create beautiful portraits of those who would like to earn our trust. Corporate executives, politicians and billionaires are learning quickly that the only way to keep the public on your side, is to make sure only the “right” information is available about them. Keeping unsavory or distasteful episodes out of the public eye, puts a new premium on privacy. Even now, it is mostly the wealthy who can afford to keep things truly private and many still fail to manage their information fully.

And this is where we come back to John Singer Sargent and his amazing ability to make us see the real person in his portraits. Sargent didn’t create chimeras or unicorns or arabesques — those unique and mythical creatures of our imaginations — we wouldn’t have believed his story. Sargent used intellect and perception to guide his brushes in describing a better version of his subjects. He carefully curated their characteristics to accentuate the positives, while blurring, or obscuring the less favorable aspects. His masterful compositions guide the eye to the pleasing features while softening the inconvenient flaws. As we move into the age of data, will a new generation of Sargents emerge — artists who can skillfully and realistically manipulate the data of a life to render an identity that is both believable and realistic in its portrayal? We should probably assume they are already here.



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Susan Cox-Smith

Partner and Experience Director at Changeist: strategist, educator, writer and designer of critical futures.