What is a portrait? Traditionally, it’s a representation of the photons bouncing off of someone’s face. Drawn or photographed, a remarkable portrait may capture a hidden depth of the subject, but the image never goes beyond skin deep.
Lifeshapes are a new kind of portrait by artist Norman Leto that, rather than capturing the shape of our bodies, flesh out the trajectory of our lives. He describes the work as “a portrait which is abstract with respect to the form but very personalized when it comes to the content,” which makes a lot more sense when you understand Leto’s methodology.
Leto takes answers from 50 very personal questions, ranging on topics from their professional careers to their sex lives. This data is fed into a homemade algorithm, which shapes the content that, depending on the information itself, can take a few or many hours to render. (Given that some of these people include Google co-founder Larry Page and Michael Jackson, presumably many of these answers were gathered from published interviews.)
The results are explosive, 3-D portraits with a linear progression. Childhoods always seem to start out as a simple string. Something happens, and the portrait balloons out in an unpredictable, bulbously multifaceted way, displaying remarkably personal information about public figures that we have no hopes to process beyond our own guttural response. (By comparison, a man in a coma since he was 12 has the lifeshape of a perfect sphere with a danging string.)
Now, not every portrait is based upon Leto’s questionnaire. Aside from the man in the coma, Joseph Stalin, for instance, is clearly the result of a bit of artistic license with one communist dictator’s life story. To me, with these somewhat lax bounds for data input, lifeshapes–a scientifically rigorous abstraction of one’s life–become hard to compare to one another. It’s like we’re flipping between portraits and self-portraits, with huge chunks of data missing that we’ll never even know isn’t there.
There’s also a strange effect of scale that one may miss in these renders. As Leto explains in the video above, “If the lifeshape of the average housewife were the size of a large match, then the lifeshape of Geraldine Chaplin would be the size of a tennis racket, and the lifeshape of Stalin would be, I don’t know, a tennis court.”
The more you learn about lifeshapes, the more subjective (and even judgmental) details there seem to be. Should a housewife’s lifeshape–her scientific portrait–really be smaller than that of a celebrity? Because a few less people knew her face, were her interactions any less meaningful? Does a celebrity’s capacity to love really scale beyond that of any commoner? Does Larry Page’s stubbed toe hurt any more than when I stub mine? We’re all stuck in this flesh-and-bone, first-person camera 24 hours a day for the entirety of our lives. Is my camera’s experience any bigger or smaller than yours? No.
In spite of those critiques, lifeshapes are a fascinating blur between artistic license and digital calculation, especially in the scope of the private lives of celebrities. That said, 9 out of 10 people would probably settle for the risqué questionnaire.
[Hat tip: Triangulation Blog]