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Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Time Event
10:41a
Another from the "deep" piles ...
This was published in 1989, and I'm guessing that I bought it soon thereafter ... so it's been sitting around on "to be read" shelves and boxes for nearly 20 years, and I finally grabbed it a week or so back.

Some books age well ... Terry Landau's About Faces: The Evolution of the Human Face, not so much. While the basic threads of the book are certainly still valid and interesting there is all sorts of "gee whiz!" stuff over fancy computer programs and such which would allow for amazing mirroring and morphing of faces ... stuff that almost any kid today could easily do with free software. The book is also heavy with 1980's celebrity faces, which, at this remove, are not as "instantly recognizable" as they were no doubt intended to be at the time ... would you recognize Princess Diana from just the hair? Heck, there are several halfs of "paired faces" that I still don't have a clue about, and I remember the 80's!

Frankly, this book is rather uneven, although I think it's that way due to trying to cover all bases. It begins with the basic evolutionary survey of how hominid skulls developed over time, with reconstructions of how various stages might have looked. It discusses how environment likely developed the various archetypal racial characteristics, and discusses group identity (making one interesting point, that almost all races have a much harder time "individuating" members of other races, while the recognition of differentiating facial detail of members of their own race is quite specific). It then looks at aging processes and moves into the first part of "minimal recognition" patterns. There is an intriguing bit of various reproductions of the Mona Lisa through pixellation filters, from a 3x4 grid on up ... the familiar figure can't be missed at 18x24, and even might be guessed at 9x12. There are also some interesting (although quaint at this point) "line drawing" programs that look at how much distortion can be applied to a picture where it would still be recognizable.

The book keeps swinging between science and art, which makes it a bit of a disjointed read. One chapter may be looking at how faces were presented in painting and sculpture over the ages and the next might have dissection diagrams of facial musculature and micro-photographs of the details of skin surface, while running off into histories of various "pseudosciences" and "social theories" in between. Again, there is a lot of interesting stuff in here (like how even never-sighted people will still have most of the standard facial expressions, without a visual model to mimic), and some "freaky stuff" (you like shrunken heads?), but it sort of comes at one in a rush, without an over-all structure. I'm not saying that it's bad or that you're not going to learn stuff by reading this, just that it feels like a collection of random essays that were gathered together just because they dealt on some level with the face!.

About Faces does seem to be out of print at this point, so if you'd be interested in checking it out, you'll have to go with the new/used market. Lucky for you, the Amazon guys have "good" copies for as little as a penny, "very good" for under a buck, and "like new" for around two bucks (all, of course, with the $3.99 shipping charge). There are even "new" copies to be had (impressive for a larger format paperback that's been kicking around for nearly 20 years!), should you want the pristine book experience.


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