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First and Second Beauty Composites


Beginning in the early 1980s—when digital graphics were still in their infancy and long before software for morphing became easily obtainable—Burson produced a series of computer-generated composite portraits in collaboration with programmers Richard Carling and David Kramlich, who were then working at the Computer Corporation of America. The program created an average of several images by mapping facial coordinates and then finding their mean. Burson’s attitude toward science is often steeped in irony, and her composites challenge earlier attempts to classify human physiognomies by such “scientists” as the eighteenth-century Swiss phrenologist Johann Kaspar Lavater and the Victorian anthropologist Sir Francis Galton—who was Darwin’s cousin, the founder of eugenics, and the first to enlist composite photography in the now-discredited campaign to establish links between appearance, intelligence, and racial superiority.


First and Second Beauty Composites (First Composite: Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelley, Sophia Loren, and Marilyn Monroe. Second Composite: Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton, Brooke Shields, and Meryl Streep), 1982

Gelatin silver computer-generated print

MATERIALS: Two gelatin silver prints from computer-generated negatives


MARKINGS: Signed, dated and numbered, verso

Each composite in this pair represents an “average” of five female movie stars popularly regarded as exceptionally beautiful—the first composite representing the beauty ideal of the 1950s and the second that of the 1980s. The actresses embody a spectrum of female archetypes, from princess to gypsy to misfit. Transmitted through movies and TV, their features have become deeply embedded in the collective consciousness. Burson proposes that the stars are themselves already composites, fabrications for popular consumption, and that notions of ideal beauty are arbitrary and time-bound.

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