An artist uses police sketch software to (re?)create some of the best-known characters in literature.
Humbert Humbert -- "lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested," with "thick black eyebrows" and "a face that might twitch with neuralgia" -- had a way with description. He drew the world that whirled around Lolita, she of the "great gray eyes" and the "shameless innocent shanks," painstakingly and lovingly and monstrously and in the service, Humbert said, of two kinds of visual memory: "one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open ... and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors."
But for those who cannot skillfully recreate or instantly evoke a face, in literature or otherwise, there is another way: the police sketch.
This week, Brian Joseph Davis launched The Composites, a Tumblr that imagines the appearance of literary characters using both the text that describes them ... and composite sketch-rendering software used mostly by law enforcement. The resulting mugshots are as creepy and incredible as you might imagine -- IQ84 meets CSI.
Here is Humbert Humbert:
And here is Emma Bovary:
The project was inspired, Davis told me, by a James Ellroy reference to "Identikits," which rendered composite images by asking crime witnesses to pick out individual features printed on index cards. The idea of literary character description "just fell in there," Davis says. And "I still can't believe no one has done this before."
In terms of image-construction itself, Davis used the forensic software program Faces ID, which gives users (creepily, incredibly) about 10,000 individual facial features to choose among. He then used the authors' descriptions of their characters as guidelines in his selections, selecting the most true-to-text facial features, Identikit-style. For the inevitable gaps in the characters' descriptions (noses and ears, Davis discovered, were often ignored by authors), he did some educated guesswork, considering factors like the era the author was writing in and other elements of the story that might inform its characters' appearance.
"So," Davis says, "it's a combination of literary criticism -- which I know well -- and forensics -- of which I'm an utter amateur."
It's a powerful combination -- one that toys, as the best elements of remix culture do, with our assumptions about what art and originality are in the first place. And one that, with its Uncanny Valley verity, may be especially appropriate at this moment in history. "Description is something that was, I think, a part of literature that was jettisoned with modernism," Davis notes in an email,
and authors that do it these days are more often than not referencing that history, or feel that they have to use those quotation marks -- i.e., description is now a stylistic choice. But our culture is in a place right now where it wants everything explicitly rendered, high definition if you will. Literature is a slow responder to change like that...
For the portraits currently populating the Tumblr, "I started with my bookshelf, which seemed the obvious place," Davis says. "Then I had to find writers who described their characters enough -- which required either knowing books' contents really, really well" ... or scanning them and looking for keywords ("eye," "ear," "hair"). A couple of the selected texts came from e-books, Davis notes, which made searching a snap. "But when I did that I started feeling a little bit wrong, like I really was using technology to invade the writer/reader relationship."
Indeed, there's an intimacy in manipulating description -- finding it, combining it, converting it into new works of art. But the richness has its limitations, too. "I made an honest effort to do a Cormac McCarthy character," Davis says, 'but you just can't work with 'Man. Medium. Two eyes.'"
All images: Brian Joseph Davis. [With a hat-tip to Clive Thompson.]
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.