Kathryn Smith (Liverpool John Moores), ‘Portrait? Likeness? Composite? Facial difference in forensic art’

Kathryn Smith of Liverpool John Moores University will be speaking at the Effaced from History conference on April 1. To register and view the full program, visit the conference website.


This presentation offers an alternative interpretation of ‘facial difference’, approaching it from the perspective of craniofacial identification and depiction, which is more commonly referred to as forensic art. Despite rigorous scientific techniques for predicting and depicting faces from skulls, marked differences in results have been seen in attempted reconstructions of the same individual. Why does this happen? Is it an artefact of poorly applied scientific method or a result of inadequate artistic skills, or both? And how does this variation in quality of facial images impact on the science of facial identification and the practice of portraiture?

Using forensic facial depiction case studies (including depictions of historical individuals), this paper will consider and compare ideas about the face drawn from the literature of scientific standards, practitioner-derived data and critical visual studies to present some speculative ideas about the ‘laws of the face’. That is to say, the legal demands of evidence, and the socio-cultural enactments of the law (as lore) in the context of a conspicuous lack of theoretical consideration of the visual cultures of forensic work, and how aesthetic choices made by forensic artists may impact on the success or efficacy of facial depictions.


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