Under the skin of those visions we all see in our mirrors

Future Face
April 1, 2005

Having read this book several times, I still cannot decide what it is: simple material for the chiropractor's coffee table or a book that will appeal to everyman. On first wash with mild soap and water, the book appeared to be some 200 pages of slightly bizarre pictures of the face, but by the time of the third chemical peel, Future Face had become interesting and insightful.

It is unlikely to make it on to the shelves of those who consider themselves to have "an average face". But what the book teaches is that there are no average faces, just a mixture of masks holding an unimaginable array of emotions and experiences. It is those faces that no longer hide these experiences that appear in the book.

The early chapters cover a range of scenarios in which the face is structurally dissected, emotionally interpreted, traumatised, repaired and covered with masks. The highlights, however, are probably the guest-authored sections, such as "Medicine face" and "Identikit face", which appear much later in the book, almost as afterthoughts. "Medicine face", by Alf Linney, a respected medical physics professor at University College London, shows the leading-edge technologies used for digital reconstruction of areas of the face (and skull) damaged by trauma or elective surgery. UK medical teams lead the way in adapting the skeletal system that gives the face its structure.

It is unfortunate, though, that the book does not cover in more detail, with photographs, those areas of plastic surgery in which the soft tissues that give the face its details are manipulated or even transplanted. This is a big oversight by Sandra Kemp, for these techniques will, in my view, give rise to the true future face.

A stab is made at this topic with a short examination of the surgery undergone by celebrities such as Michael Jackson. However, environmental effects are missing. Will fear of skin cancer shift us from our sunbeds and force us to hide ourselves under Factor 30-something lotions? And will the increased number of interracial couples having children result in mixed stereotypical traits? There is mention in the book of work highlighting some of these trends, and of "Eve", a picture printed in Time magazine to illustrate the face of America (15 per cent Anglo-Saxon, 17.5 per cent Middle Eastern, 17.5 per cent African, 7.5 per cent Asian, 7.5 per cent Hispanic and 35 per cent southern European), but no image is presented, although a rather thought-provoking example of skin colour does appear: an image of the Queen with black skin, published in 1993 in Benetton's magazine Colors .

"Identikit face", by Vicki Bruce, examines visual recognition. The ever-increasing interest in the face among security agencies has led to many new areas of research, not only into face-recognition software but into social and legal issues. Bruce has a neat section on gender recognition from facial features and on how this can be affected by such variables as age, hairstyle and plucking the eyebrows. She also discusses how these simple variables can easily direct us towards mental pigeonholes predetermined by what we know of a person's social position, career and trustworthiness.

This is the part of the book that really engages, with questions about how we interpret what we see in the mirror every day and how easily we are fooled by it.

Kemp's Future Face exhibition, at the Science Museum in London, used a series of video links to help the casual observer overcome the visual challenge in following the changes that occur to a face with time, trauma and computerised or surgical enhancement. It is a shame that the book does not come with the CD-Rom catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, although one can request a free copy from the Wellcome Trust.

Ian Thompson is research fellow in oral and maxillofacial surgery, King's College London.

Future Face: Image, Identity, Innovation

Author - Sandra Kemp
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 224
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 1 86197 768 9

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