A Visual Odyssey

By Jessica Helfand

An elaborately illustrated A to Z of the face, from historical mugshots to Instagram posts.





An elaborately illustrated A to Z of the face, from historical mugshots to Instagram posts.

By turns alarming and awe-inspiring, Face offers up an elaborately illustrated A to Z—from the didactic anthropometry of the late-nineteenth century to the selfie-obsessed zeitgeist of the twenty-first.

Jessica Helfand looks at the cultural significance of the face through a critical lens, both as social currency and as palimpsest of history. Investigating everything from historical mugshots to Instagram posts, she examines how the face has been perceived and represented over time; how it has been instrumentalized by others; and how we have reclaimed it for our own purposes. From vintage advertisements for a “nose adjuster” to contemporary artists who reconsider the visual construction of race, Face delivers an intimate yet kaleidoscopic adventure while posing universal questions about identity.


$39.95 T ISBN: 9780262043427 280 pp. | 7 in x 9.875 in 171 color illus., 70 b&w illus.


  • So telling the story of the face, Helfand makes clear, necessarily means telling the story of both personal and collective identity. The face—whether we like it or not—is absolutely connected to who we are and who we believe others to be…The thing about pictures of the face, as Helfand poignantly illustrates, is that the person taking them is almost always missing. The person telling the story—the portrait artist, the director, the member of the family with the camera who is least likely to cut off heads—is never in the picture. Helfand is less interested in the mechanisms, technologies, and infrastructures of facial recognition software and more interested in the artifacts and narratives they produce. Helfand's touch is deft and light, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about the intertwined anecdotes and theories of the face.

    Public Books

  • Jessica Helfand's book reminds the reader that their face is a territory of both power and vulnerability. It is the first port of call to judge, categorise, diagnose, mock, shame, bully, legitimise, recognise, monitor. It can be doctored, discriminated against, adorned, hidden. 'Face' is as profound and complex as the theme it covers but it is also fun with its plethora of images, ideas and artworks.


  • Helfand's visual odyssey nudges readers to look and look again at the faces of world leaders, immigrants, popular figures--even at the face they see in the mirror--to discern what they might reveal.

    Shelf Awareness

  • Her ambitious history of facial representation delves into often conflicting aspects of recording, measuring, airbrushing, categorizing and otherwise judging faces. Considering tintype photography, digital selfies, mug shots, celebrity photoshoots, Polaroids and more, Helfand examines why and how humans capture their own faces and others', and the ways those images are used: analyzed, judged, manipulated, glorified.

    Shelf Awareness

  • Beautifully designed and smartly written, this book is an unique view of the visage as image and beyond.

    Steven Heller


  • Helfand's interrogations are topical, thought-provoking, and often troubling. It is impossible to look away.


  • What does the mug shot have to do with the selfie? With faces everywhere in our image-obsessed society, self-photographed and otherwise, Helfand's historical and critical approach helpfully zooms out.

    New York Times Book Review


  • Everything you ever wanted to know about the face, plus lots you never knew you would want to know—and a few things you wish you didn't. Endlessly fascinating. A must-read as well as a treasury of images.

    Chuck Close

  • Jessica Helfand is at it again, going for the face with her usual brilliant and focused eye. This mashup of narcissism, mysticism, and selfie culture makes this a must-read visual diary for the 21st century.

    Laurie Simmons

    Artist and Filmmaker

  • Leave it to a (great) designer to lead us through history all the way to our days—the age of machine interfaces and AI tone deafness; ageing software and stolen identities; gender fluidity and racial stereotyping—and show us how, now more than ever, a face contains multitudes.

    Paola Antonelli

    Senior Curator, Architecture & Design, The Museum of Modern Art

  • In this timely new book, Jessica Helfand presents an important addition to the field of visual culture, especially meaningful in this age of incessant selfie-posting and facial recognition surveillance. Through an extraordinary set of striking, mostly photographic, images from the nineteenth century to the present, the author poses a wide variety of thought-provoking questions, including considerations of heredity, identity, physiognomy, and the impact of science and pseudo-science on our evaluation of facial anatomy. Beautifully written and brilliantly displayed, Helfand's “cabinet of curiosities” inspires self-investigation beyond the mirror.

    Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

    Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University