MAS965: Social Visualization
Prof. Judith Donath
Assignment 7 - Data Portraits
Nov 2, 2004

Francis Lam

A portrait involves a subject, an artist, and an audience. What is the relationship among these three? How does the artist's role change depending on his or her relationship to the subject and the audience?

Portraying an individual is a balance of the tensions among the subject, the artist and the audience, because all of them would like the portrait to look or feel like the one whom they have in mind. The artist takes the active role in depicting his own likeness perception of the one to be portrayed while the subject tends to hope for a true reflection of him/herself. The audience perceives the portrait either in the way it is proposed by the artist or in other ways that are prejudiced by his/her knowledge about the subject, he/she not privy to the intimate psychological exchange between the artist and the subject but whose view often determines the significance of the work, or of the subject.

As mentioned by Brilliant's article, we all make a number of assumptions, usually unstated, about the appearance of people, well known to us, for whom we use a particular name, thinking to ourselves. The artist who has strong tie with the subject leans to project his/her preconception about the sitter in the portrait, his/her role might change to making a portrait of someone in his/her mind unconsciously, instead of making a portrait for the audience to have a better understanding of the subject. In extreme intimateness, the artist himself is the subject, for example, Rembrandt in his self-portraits or in the online space where people portraying themselves in the friendster network, they present their portraits by images, texts, sounds, animations, which they believe are their best representations to the viewers. However, weaker relationship between the artist and the subject leads to the resulting portrait a resemblance of a battlefield, documenting the struggle for dominance between the artist's conception and the subject's will.

As our social personality is a creation of other people's thought, the audience also takes an important role in examining the likeness of a portrait. If they are the immediate family of the subject, they are eligible for the most faithful judge. The relationship between the audience and the artist also has a significant effect on the role of the artists and how they depict the subject. It is more about the intention of the portraiture, whether the artists aim at presenting a real individual for their own sake, where they employ more of their artistic expertise to convey their interpretations of the looks and character to viewers; or the artists aim at presenting a person to the viewer, where they have to keep someone other than the subject in mind.

Loops and This Voice Anywhere are non-facial portraits: Loops is a portrait of Merce Cunningham through his hand movements and This Voice Anywhere is a portrait of the viewer through voice. Do they function as portraits? Why or why not? Can you think of other ways of representing the data - i.e. would it be more expressive if less abstracted?

I think they do function as portraits as long as they depict the character of the subject, which can be perceived by the audience, and establish a connection between the portrait and the person being portrayed. The function of portrait is the representation of an individual through the artist's brushes and strokes to convey a visual form of the man in the viewers' mind, faces as the most visually-dominating feature are always the most direct way of this kind of representation. However, the likeness of a portrayed face and a physical face varies among different viewers and is hardly distinguishable because people tend to have assumption about others.

Using other distinctive features of a subject other than appearance, such as the hand movements of a pioneering dance legend, the voice of people making a statement in a specific location, for a portrait is adequate as they also have the power to represent a real individual, which might not be as fast as on the first glance of an eye like by the face, but doubtlessly makes a connection to the subject in viewer's mind. In addition, the abstractness of these features depicted by the portrait might be understood easier by the audience through their indexical properties, which are proposed by the artist.

By taking the notion from Marcel Proust that our social personality is a creation of other people's thought, data could be represented by a collection of values of how people perceive them. Instead of depicting the data merely by their own qualities, they could be visualized by other people's preconceptions toward them. Taking the collective attributes of the data as a consideration of their representation can give the viewer a more expressive effect, because the depiction, to certain extent, is based partly upon the viewer himself.

The Goldberg family self-portraits and The Brown Sisters (links above) are time series photos. What does the addition of this dimension add? How could this be incorporated in a data portrait?

The time series photos add a history to the portraiture and show the dynamics of the aging processes of the individuals in the photos. They portray an individual by the effect of time on this person physically, which is very appealing for me to see these changing processes of real individuals' appearances. Limiting the position of the people in the photos and the alignment of the photos as a final layout allows the viewers to concentrate on these changes over time.

If a single photo depicts a facet of an individual, a time series photos depict the same facet but also its evolving pattern. The series does not necessarily have a better representation of the individual, but what it does is revealing an underlying pattern of this individual by means of time. The frequency of the time series photos should also be taken account, comparing the above two examples, which use a year as a divider, to The Daily Photo Project, the former two show more salient changes between two consecutive photos while the myriad latter give more gradual change, which is less legible at a glance.

Incorporation of the dimension of history and the change over time in a data portrait allows us to divulge the pattern hidden beneath. To achieve this, one way is an accumulation of the limited attributes of the data over time in a continuum as the Contact Mountain. Animation can also help in depicting the time factor of a data portrait, especially when handling with massive amount of discreet data.

A time series is multiple images of the same person or people over time. Other portrait series bring together portrayals of numerous different people in a way that highlights the similarities and differences between them. This can include collections of works by a single artist published in a book or displayed sequentially. How does this add (or detract) from the impression each portrait makes? This voice anywhere created numerous sound portraits; how might they be displayed to function as a series?

I mentioned earlier that if a single photo depicts a facet of an individual, a time series photos depict the same facet but also its evolving pattern. Then collections of works by a single artist are like collections of photos, in which the individual posed differently. They represent multiple facets of the person and in here time is not necessarily telling a story, unless there is a legible change over time.

This adds to the impression each portrait makes if these portraits have some qualities in common, then gathering them together facilitates their convergence and presumably depicts more convincing portrait. On the contrary, detached portraits in the collections are likely to detract from the impression each portrait makes because they dilute the character of the artist when the audience fails to find the focus.

The sound portraits painted by This Voice Anywhere are the distinctive qualities of the subject's voice, it might be interesting to combine all these qualities in one single audio track as a series and display them with an image digitally composed by all the subjects' photographs. When a new viewer participates in the installation, he will add in new qualities of his voice as well as his photograph to create an ever-changing series sonic and visual portraiture.