The Many Faces in Things

Ever stare at a doorway or the front of a car and think, That looks like a face? We asked five photographers to spend a few weeks training their cameras on the smiles and frowns hiding in their midst.

Pareidolia: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. (From Merriam-Webster)
BEN ALPER; Durham, North Carolina

My initial fear was that going out in search of these instances would force something that cannot be forced; or, that by trying to translate the experience photographically, it would lose something in the process—kind of like explaining the punchline to a joke. To my surprise, when I started looking for faces, they were everywhere. Searching for and translating these instances into legible photographs is so fundamentally what the medium is about. It’s only when everything aligns, or falls into place perceptually, that the image is constructed. One step to the left, or a slight variation in vantage point, is all it takes for a face to dissolve as quickly as it formed.


The phenomena of seeing signs in the everyday is either considered to be a trait of the obsessive-compulsive, or a mystical messaging system. I found the faces in these images while hurricanes were eating the Caribbean and earthquakes were violently shaking Mexico. It provided a mental escape after incessant refreshing of a troubled newsfeed. I walked Manhattan for hours, scanning for familiarity in the banal. I ignored pedestrians who stared at me curiously while I stared at trash and small plants. They asked me, “Do you need help?” In New York, nobody just stands still. This was an exercise in looking that centered me in the “now,” and when the future seems so shaky, it felt more sane than ever to take the time to just look.

MÅRTEN LANGE; Berlin, Germany

This was an interesting exercise in perception. First I saw nothing, but as I spent more time staring at the trees, patterns and shapes started appearing. And then it became more a problem of seeing too much, the mind grasping for meaning in any configuration of knots and twigs. Making these pictures reminded me that visual experiences always depend on interpretation.

CHRIS MAGGIO; Queens, New York

What the heck is the thrill of discovering a face in an inanimate object? Or the shape of an animal that's in the clouds? Is it a God thing? That Cheeto™ that kinda looks like the Virgin Mary—is that supposed to be divine intervention? No. It's the opposite of that. We see what we want to see; you're looking for a silhouette in the sky to pass the time, or seeking something in the leaves of a tree to bring up on your awkward first date with someone. As a lonely freelance photographer in the Big Apple, what I really want to see when I’m walking around is just a friendly face to interact with. Because when you’re by yourself all day, who wouldn’t want a pair of nonjudgmental, receptive eyes to keep you company?

LAURA HART NEWLON; Seattle, Washington

I limited myself to a square three blocks around my own home, where I frequently walk with my three-year-old son. We tend to walk relatively slowly, so this was a chance to look a little more closely at the everyday features of my neighborhood: knots in the wood of fences, utility poles, the chance patterns of leaves on the ground. I started to see only mouths. Branches and arched doorways suggested the slight curve of lips, while garage doors and windows became desperate, gaping yawns. So many faceless mouths. Perhaps because I was with a toddler, I was drawn primarily to faces found in the confluence of small objects both indoors and outdoors, often at knee height or on the ground. Predictably, once I started looking for pareidolia, I found it everywhere; the challenge was to render it legibly through a simple photograph.

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