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A portrait of facial recognition: Tracing a history of a statistical way of seeing

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Automated facial recognition methods have become widely used as a way to ascertain the identity of individuals. Yet the methods by which facial recognition technologies (FRT) operate – the machinic performance of the perception of the human face – are often invisible to those under their gaze. This article investigates the machinic perception of the face through an FRT method known as eigenface, in order to both reveal and problematize the ways of seeing that underlie it. As part of its algorithmic processes, eigenface produces an image. This image can be understood as a portrait of machine recognition, making visible the processes through which the algorithm performs recognition and ‘sees’ the human face. The eigenface portrait reveals a way of seeing that is based on statistical processes of pattern recognition. An analogue antecedent of this application of statistics to the recognition of facial images can be found in the composite portrait. Through a dialectical discussion of composite portraiture in multiple disciplinary fields ranging from sociology to philosophy and the visual arts, this article experiments with providing a cultural and social translation of machine processes of visual perception. The discussion shifts the focus of enquiry towards the aesthetics of the algorithmic process in order to provide an entry point for critique and a possible reimagination on algorithmic knowledge production.
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Keywords: algorithm; automated facial recognition; composite portraiture; eigenface; identification portraiture; machine vision

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Lund University

Publication date: October 1, 2018

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  • Philosophy of Photography is a new peer-reviewed journal devoted to the scholarly understanding of photography. It is not committed to any one notion of photography nor, indeed, to any particular philosophical approach. The purpose of the journal is to provide a forum for debate on theoretical issues arising from the historical, political, cultural, scientific and critical matrix of ideas, practices and techniques that may be said to constitute photography as a multifaceted form. In a contemporary context remarkable for its diversity and rate of change, the conjunction of the terms 'philosophy' and 'photography' in the journal's title is intended to act as a provocation to serious reflection on the ways in which existing and emergent photographic discourses might engage with and inform each other.
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