Sarah Bryant and David Allen, “Figure Study”

Partially open view.

Open view showing booklet, grid, and open box of figures printed on drafting film.

Detail of several figures layered on the grid in the enclosure.

Detail of an index that can be used to identify the two geographical regions represented by each figure. This index is included in a book which also includes an essay by David Allen about our data sources and process.


Sarah Bryant (East Sussex, UK) and David Allen (Middlebury, VT)

Figure Study
Letterpress printed from polymer plates and linoleum on drafting film and Arches Velin paper
Edition of 35
134 pages (including drafting film sheets)
11 x 21 x .75″ open
11 x 7 x 1.25″ closed

I produce books that examine both our physical composition and our social anxieties; our dry assessment of our environment and our emotional connection to those surroundings. I use diagrammatic imagery and text derived from reference materials to convey these ideas. Analytical imagery is critical to how we imagine ourselves and the world around us, and how we relay that understanding to others. I am interested in the simplicity of this language, which allows for slight variations in line, color and format to describe a great variety of different systems; the movement of peoples, changes in climate, the progress of disease. This flexibility speaks to our need to connect, to find patterns, and to place ourselves in a world we can understand and explain.

Figure Study is a collaborative project with David Allen, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Middlebury College. This book enables a quick and compelling comparison of population data for every region on earth. Using estimates prepared by the US Census Bureau, which are available through their International Data Base, we created population pyramids for every region and paired them up to create abstracted human forms. A thick-waisted form indicates two populations with a large older population that lives to quite advanced age. Narrow-waisted figures represent the combination of two populations with very few elderly people. Asymmetrical bulges to the left or right indicate a higher male or female population for particular age segments.

All 114 of these figures have been printed from linoleum onto drafting film and are housed together alongside a grid. The figures are each numbered and can be interpreted using a booklet containing an alphabetical and numerical index, as well as a short essay by David Allen about our process and the source of the data. The design of the enclosure encourages the viewer to layer the forms to create different combinations of shape and color. This process and the resulting imagery is initially reminiscent of elaborate dresses, paper dolls, and dissection plates, but the source of the data gives a different picture, laying bare the vast and critical differences between the basic equations of life in different parts of the world.

Although we carefully graphed all of the available information, it was initially collected using a variety of different methods. The data is a combination of accurate reporting, biased self-description, out of date or incomplete reports, and best guess projections by Census Bureau demographers. It is a flawed narrative drawn from our combined and often conflicting desires to give a truthful and exact account and to tell a story about ourselves. In this way, Figure Study is similar to any self-portrait, conveying alternating moments of accuracy, optimism, and humility.