Atta Kim and the Algorithmic Face

by Milly Cai

A reproduction of Atta Kim’s Self-Portrait of an Asian man, found in a publication by the International Center for Photography, fills a page of semi-glossy paper juxtaposing a scattered collage of individual portraits.  He faces us with a muted expression; his lips curve into a slight smile while his eyes, glazed over, are emotionless and empty. Blurred and faint, the figure gradually recedes, dissolving into the blue background while bringing his facial features forward; he is out of focus. While strikingly familiar, the portraits contain elements of dissipation that at first glance seem to be the result of a long exposure or camera movement.

Part of a larger ongoing project titled “On-Air,” Kim’s “Self-Portrait Series” includes three images, each presented as a ¾ portrait against a solid blue background. Kim began his “On-Air Project” immediately following “The Museum Project” (1995-2002), a series contemplating ideas of assigned value and preservation.  Kim pondered the lives of the subjects photographed in “The Museum Project” and reflected the idea of impermanence and transience of physical existence through three different procedures: the long exposure, the composite photograph, and the time-lapse. In the catalog, Kim’s self-portraits, sandwiched between soft landscapes and ghost-like bodies, seem to disrupt the collective dreamy, airy, and contemplative atmosphere of the project with a feeling of disquiet. These portraits beg the question: who or what are we looking at?

Atta Kim’s Self-Portrait is explicitly related to a long history of composite photography that dates back to the 19th century with Francis Galton and continues to the present day in facial recognition technology. The invention of composite photography was motivated by the desire to categorize and judge unfamiliar faces. In the 19th Century, Francis Galton famously produced composites of human types by attempting to link “physical appearance to psychological traits.” Like Kim’s Self-Portrait, Galton’s composites were layered ¾ portraits that resulted in an averaged, blurry figure intended to create evidence of “all the traits in which there is agreement.” 

Galton’s methods can be understood against the backdrop of the social reforms taking place in the first half of the 19th century in England.  These reform acts merged small cities together and aimed to improve the working conditions for the poor.  Suddenly, there were a lot more unfamiliar faces and as conditions improved, immigration increased. Statistics were gathered with hopes of improving human productivity and life so that deviations from the norm would diminish. England was monitored and the poor were under surveillance. For Galton, the message of these composites became: whoever looks like this may be an officer, a criminal, or a Jew. These techniques of power were used to exercise control, aiming at specific groups of individuals. Like Galton’s statistical method, Kim began his project by organizing individuals into specific racial and gendered groups. Both composites result in unpersoned, subjectless faces that interrogate the conditions of their production and our constructions of race and gender.

In algorithmic face recognition systems, the production of the composite remains important for face identification and analysis. To take an older example, the Eigenface technique takes a composite of a dataset of faces, analyzes one face, and subtracts the common features, leaving a unique fingerprint specific to that individual. To identify someone, the algorithm looks for the ‘fingerprint’. Here, the characteristics that disappear into ambiguity through the process of producing the composite are what the algorithm looks for in order to identify the individual. In other words, the algorithm takes the subject, tears them into pieces, and transforms them into data. In this context, Atta Kim’s Self-Portrait is the first step in producing facial fingerprints for all 100 participating faces.

Produced between 2002-2006, Kim’s Self Portrait of an Asian man can be viewed as a reflection on the increased global interest in facial recognition systems post 9/11. During the months following the attacks, identity was framed as a matter of national security and the goal was to “wipe away the enemy of anonymity.” The rapid implementation of facial recognition systems aimed to identify, categorize, and predict the actions of the individual behind the unfamiliar face. In this context, Kim’s Self-Portrait represents a transformation from individual to data— facial recognition divides the individual into a category, like Kim’s “Asian man”, and into a statistic, like Galton’s criminal type.

Atta Kim’s Self-Portrait visually illustrates anxieties surrounding visibility and privacy while simultaneously challenging our relationships with images. Kim says, “all that exists will eventually disappear”—however, in the process of producing the composite, the individuals lose their unique characteristics and obtain a new identity through ambiguity. This new identity can be read as Kim intended: here is an Asian man. Facial recognition systems are arguably automating methods of identification; filtering through thousands of images, they simultaneously assign categories while fragmenting the face into data, producing the ultimate composite portrait.


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