Composite Photography

Composite Portraits

An arrangement of composite portraits by Henry Pickering Bowditch (1840-1911) in the publication from the second International Exhibition of Eugenics in 1921.

In his 1908 autobiography, Galton describes the composite process in brief: “My earlier experiments were with the full-face photographs of criminals. I selected three which were not greatly unlike, and were of the same size, as judged by measuring the vertical distance between the pupils of the eyes and the parting of the lips. Out of a thin card I cut a window of the size of the portrait, and fastened two threads over it, one vertical, the other crossways. Lastly I made a pin-hole in the card on either side of the window. Thus provided, I laid each portrait in turn on the table, and adjusted the card until the cross line passed over the pupils of the eyes, and the vertical line bisected the interval. Then I pricked through the two pin-holes the paper on which the portrait was. I could thus hang all three portraits one behind the other on two pins that projected from a board, with the assurance that the principal features of each face would occupy an identical position in front of a fixed camera. I photographed them in turns. The camera was uncapped during one-third of the normal time of exposure while the first portrait was in front of it. Capping it again, I took away the front portrait and exposed the second, then uncapping the camera I took the second portrait; and similarly the third. The result was particularly promising; it was difficult to believe that the composite was not a simple portrait. I tested the truth of the result by placing the photographs in different order, and by many other ways…

“I have successfully made many composites both of races and of families. The composites are always more refined and ideal-looking than any one of their components, but I found that persons did not like being mixed up with their brothers and sisters in a common portrait. It seems a curious and rather silly feeling, but there can be no doubt of its existence. I see no other reason why composite portraiture should not be much employed for obtaining family types. Composites might be made of brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, together with a composite of the race, each in their due proportions…. The result would be very instructive, but the difficulty of obtaining the material is now overwhelming.”

Composite Photography