Smile!611.92

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.

ROSE MARIE CROMWELL; New York, New York

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.

Share this story

Cold Open

Unmasked

A young woman discards artificial selves to uncover an authentic one.

We Would Be Heroes

Senior citizens are often ignored, shunted to the side, or simply not seen at all. But older Americans have dreams, too—and some of those fantasies include flying, fighting injustice, and battling the very idea of age itself.

View storyArrow

Darkness, Invisible

A mid-century collaboration between visionary photographer Gordon Parks and novelist Ralph Ellison, inspired by Ellison’s tour de force, Invisible Man.

View storyArrow

Art Imitates Life

Meet nine Los Angeles artists, photographed in the style of their own work.

View storyArrow

W.I.T.C.H.es Brew

Inside the revival of a 1960s feminist group, the anonymous members of which choose to protest in ways that are very fitting for fall.

View storyArrow

Decoding the Language of Extremist Clothing

A field guide to the sartorial choices of the far right.

View storyArrow

Seek and You Shall Find

Here’s what happens when playing hide-and-seek with kids goes predictably wrong...or hilariously right.

View storyArrow

Hiding in Plain Sight

A rumination on one of the most beloved, and most mysterious, living American writers.

View storyArrow

Raising Crane

Unusual feeding techniques pioneered by researchers in the mid-20th century have kept whooping cranes from going extinct. Change is coming, though.

View storyArrow

The oral history of how a determined Chicago reporter convinced her boss to do something that hadn’t been done before—to create a fake business with a real location.

View storyArrow

Inside America’s Most Disturbing Haunted House

Every year, hundreds flock to Southern California horror experience the 17th Door. We went to a rehearsal to see how they prepare to frighten the masses.

View storyArrow

Off Topic

The True Crime Story Behind a 1970 Cult Feminist Film Classic

The only film that Barbara Loden ever made, Wanda, is now considered to be a masterpiece. Here is the true story behind the fiction.

View storyArrow

Off Topic

The True, Twisted Story of Amityville Horror

The true story behind the “true story” of the notorious Long Island home, the site of a terrible murder and then the basis of scores of books and movies.

View storyArrow

About the Cover (Masters of Disguise)

A conversation with La Boca, the London-based design collective behind our October cover.

View storyArrow

Off Topic

Faces of Death (And Larry David)

If you find a wax head in the closet, you might be in a funeral director's house. All about the art and science of facial reconstruction.

View storyArrow