Police sketches look as much like "police sketches" as they do their intended subject. Aesthetically, the black & white expressionless face, composed of slightly ill-fitting features is practically a genre unto itself. If they differ from the work of hobbyist portraitists only by lacking a grin and a signature, the effect of the difference is great. Recognizing the presence of a police sketch triggers a collective paranoia, a guardedness against threats specific or abstract, real or imagined.
I'd been collecting composite sketches I found online and reposting them, with no information, in the Lost & Found and Missed Connections sections of Craigslist for various cities. I used only images that were not in current news-cycles and I did not post them in cities near the crimes they represented. I even mixed in the rare unsmiling amateur portrait. I posted no text to explain them. All were immediately, repeatedly, flagged and removed as inappropriate. Asking in the Help forums what Terms of Service they violated generated a lively, if incoherent, debate. I was told I could not impersonate people on Craigslist, nor could I post personal information. Pointing out that I'd done neither, one person told me that you can't use Craigslist to "seek people".
Of course, "seeking people" is exactly what the site is built largely to do. But most simply sidestepped my question by questioning my motives, in turn. My refusal to explain these posts made people dismiss them as either unserious or deviant. One began addressing me as "Creepy-Ass Stalker". I maintained that "creepy" is not a violation of Craigslist's Terms of Service, as evidenced by the most cursory glance at the "Casual Encounters" section of the site, but having seen the collective paranoia so effectively provoked, I moved on.
I xeroxed some 1,600 copies of a particularly generic bald white man, and flooded St. Mark's Place and Tompkins Square Park in NYC with them. The fliers bore my telephone number, but no other information. I put them out where I could watch people examine them, often pocket them, without giving them a chance to ask my intentions. In fact I didn't know my intentions, but I got nothing anyway. This was not surprising, probably, as the park is home to many young punks and anarchists (one of the weekends I did this was the 20th anniversary of a riot which was being celebrated by a day of punk bands).
St. Mark's Place, however, has trendy restaurants and shops, and I put a handful of fliers on every outside table. People would push them away warily, or opt for a table where the fliers had already blown away. Surprisingly, adding a handful of crayons to the pile seemed to do nothing to make them more appealing, though I occasionally amused myself by adding Groucho Marx, clown and drag queen disguises to my fugitive.
These were ultimately failed attempts to engage complete strangers with an image; I wanted their language but got none. I'd hoped to work backward, somehow: from drawn image to verbal description. Instead, I've been collecting written descriptions of faces I don't know, from friends. All are surprised at the difficulty; some overlook multiple features altogether.
Over the course of Trickhouse, Vol 2. I'll be posting in this space portraits generated from these descriptions, and the subsequent refinements of the image until the descriptor determines I have made a passable portrait. I hope to see what, if any, regularity there is in the use of terms- whether, for instance I can take the "fat lips" off one face and use it as the starting point for someone else's "fat lips" and arrive at a satisfactory set of fat lips with fewer refinements.
Submit a description:
If you would like to submit a description, please do so before familiarizing yourself with the terms and images in the pages that follow. Please address each feature with whatever description you think is effective. Email your description to firstname.lastname@example.org with "police sketch" in the subject heading.
This experiment is just beginning, so participation is welcome.