Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Art

Age Progression

The cases in which a photo is used to create an image of a person years hence are most often those of missing children and fugitives from the law.  For example, images of John List were drawn sixteen years after he slaughtered his family, and the artist had to determine what someone like him might look like after so many years.  Some fugitives change their identities with facial hair, weight gain, weight loss, a disguise or hair dye.  To cover all bases, the artist may develop multiple appearances.  John List turned out to be predictable, because he was a rigid, conservative man, so he didn't do much to change himself.

To get the features of an older person right, artists need to know how faces age, jowls develop, lips thin out, hairlines recede and hair color changes.  While a person's basic "look" holds true throughout lifemost noticeable in the eyes---some changes are inevitable, and they're fairly predictable from one decade to the next.  However, there are individual factors in aging, so it helps to have access to photos of family members around the person's target age.  Some knowledge of his or her personal habits, such as smoking or eating, also helps, and as people age, they often end up wearing glasses.  The type of personality they have affects tension lines in the face, and something in their medical history may affect how they look.

Fugitive update of a serial killer
Fugitive update of a serial killer (Karen T. Taylor)

Yet in some ways, the image of a child who's been missing for years is the more challenging task, because the shape of the face changes, and the artist has to rely on a number of factors to get it right. The artist takes into account the way most humans develop, with reference to specific family characteristics, such as weight and wrinkle formation.       

Mary H. Manhein, author of The Bone Lady, directs the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory (F.A.C.E.S.) at Louisiana State University.  For the first decade of its existence, they did the typical work of forensic anthropology, which meant using three-dimensional sculpture with skulls.  In 1990 they added another feature: "We have a computer enhancement component," Manhein says, "where we do age progression.  My assistant was trained at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, yet we also do computer enhancement on missing felons and missing adults."

LSU Campus
LSU Campus (Louisiana State University)

Age regression on the photo of a child involves:

  • The use of a photo, generally after the age of two
  • Having access to photos of siblings during different stages of their development
  • Having full frontal facial photos of the parents and other relatives
  • Having photos of parents at the age to which the child will be progressed
  • Collecting information about medical conditions that can affect appearance
  • Using information from tables about quantifiable growth data

Using a computer program that can work with the images of age progression, the photos are scanned in.  The software then uses quantifiable growth data to predict the structural changes that the face would undergo during specific ages, and it recreates the photo according to those specifications.  Using grids, the artist can manipulate different parts of the image and refine the facial nuances.

A child's face broadens and lengthens, because faces grow downward and outward.  Secondary teeth grow in, and the bridge of the nose rises.  The cranium expands, the eyes narrow, the mouth widens and the nose lengthens.  Light-colored hair tends to darken.  By age twelve, the face looks fairly mature, with the chin forming and the nose still growing.  Eventually the cheekbones take on more prominence and eyebrows fill in.

Depending upon the age to which they're progressing the child, the photo of a relative close in age to that target is also scanned into the software and laid side-by-side with the progressed image.  By degrees, the image is touched up to look more like the relative, or they're merged to experiment with combinations of features.

According to Karen Taylor's book, the first case to successfully age a child's face involved two sisters, Debbi and Cathy, who were abducted by their father.  This happened in 1977, and eight years later in 1985, NBC aired a documentary show called "Missing."  They requested that artist Scott Barrows make a sketch of the girls to include on the program.  He took some old photos their mother had and worked on aging their faces.  Within minutes of showing the finished results on the air, school officials where the girls currently lived recognized them and called it in.  The father was arrested and the girls were returned to their mother.

Investigators also took notice and increasingly more cases of abducted or missing children involved forensic artists.  The techniques were further refined and more artists got involved.  Generally they utilize both drawing skills and the computer programs to get an accurate result, because the best work still relies on talent combined with subjective artistic impressions.

Since art is a perfect visual for television programs, it's likely that the many methods of forensic art will get more attention and exposure, which means that more people may be identified and returned to their families or to prison.

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