Sunday, February 10, 2008

Face Blindness: Prosopagnosia

"TOM UGLOW, A GRAPHIC DESIGNER in London, didn't have a problem perceiving that it was a girl watching him across the bar. Her blond hair had a nice sheen. She seemed pretty. Uglow ordered another beer, downed it, and walked her way. He was about to introduce himself when she cut him off.

"Hi, Tom," she said, no longer smiling. "Why were you making eyes at me?"

"Damn," he thought. "This isn't going as planned."

Her voice sounded familiar. He searched her face but couldn't place her. This happened more than he liked to admit.

"How've you been?" he asked, casually trying to fish for a clue as to who she was.

"Better now that we're broken up."

Ah! It was his ex-girlfriend. Once he'd had a moment to process her voice, he was able to place her. They had dated for a year. Definitely not a good person to be hitting on. It was a problem: Every time he saw a face, it felt like it was for the first time.

Uglow tried to work around it. Everyone looked equally unfamiliar, but rather than treat unfamiliar faces as strangers, he acted like everyone was his best pal. "Generally, I'll be very smiley, friendly, and nice, even though I have no idea who I'm talking to," he says. "But at least that person would come away liking me." He'd rather live in a world populated with friends than with strangers.

It never occurred to Uglow that his inability to see the world as others did would stand in the way of becoming an artist. Ever since he was a kid, he had loved drawing and made endless sketches of friends and family in his journals. They almost never had faces. For Tom, that wasn't a big deal. He felt he could convey personality with his brushstrokes or a particularly adept representation of someone's posture.

Every year, he made a pilgrimage to London's National Portrait Gallery. The museum hosts an annual contest to select the best emerging portrait artists, and Uglow likes to keep up with the latest techniques. This year, the winning portrait was a photorealistic depiction of an elderly woman, her face wrinkled and blotchy. Uglow loved it, though not because of the three-quarters-crazy look in the woman's eyes or her haunted expression. He loved it because the technique was so precise, so exact. To him, it spoke of the struggle against chaos, decay, and death. It was an attempt to impose order on what couldn't be controlled. In his own way, he had grasped the essence of the painting.

By day, Uglow makes a living designing logos, but someday he'd like to see his portraits hang in the gallery. The fact that they don't have faces doesn't seem to be an impediment. "Faces aren't that important in the contemporary art world," he observes. And yet, despite the missing faces – or maybe because of them – his paintings and sketches are evocative. In one sketch, a young girl holds an umbrella in a field. The umbrella has a densely patterned green and purple canopy, and individual blades of grass are visible. The girl's scarf is sharply defined, but she has no face. In another drawing, newlyweds stand beside a wedding cake; the bride has no head, but the fringe of her dress is elaborately delineated. It's a view into another reality."

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