Photography and Eugenics [model abstract]

Green, David. “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics.” Oxford Art Journal 7.2 (1985): 3-16.

Abstracted by Victoria Byler

Green argues against the supposed objectivity of photographs. For much of their existence, photographs have been regarded as accurate recreations of reality; however Green exposes that photographs cannot be objective because “photographic representations are not constructed first and then used, but as representations they are always constructed in use” (4). Green substantiates that “knowledge cannot be regarded as autonomous or transcendent of the context in which it is used because in itself it is the product of, and intended to serve, manipulative and predictive interests”(4). He supports this claim through the conjunction of photography and the study of the formative stages of eugenics. Eugenics is the study of the sociocultural importance of characteristics passed down through generations to isolate the best traits and use them to perpetuate the human race, closely related to the concept of Social Darwinism. Green references the eugenic studies of Havelock Ellis and expounds upon the work of Francis Galton and his methods of composite photography, the practice of retaking photographs to reduce multiple images into a one generic image, to highlight the underlying implications of photography (11). Galton’s work analyzes people’s physical traits to find common features in different races, social classes, or most frequently- criminals to support the movement “not for a new social order but for the reconstitution of the old order at a higher level of efficiency” (15). Galton developed techniques to emphasize common traits, disseminated information about eugenics to doctors to gain support, and created a data collection system by recruiting amateur photographers to take pictures of family and friends to enlarge his image database.  The image Composite portrait of a criminal type exemplifies the type of image Galton produced in an attempt to explain the various economic and social shifts during the late 1800s. Photography aided the eugenics movement because in this period of time, photography was used as irrefutable documentation. Overall, photographs are always created for a specific reason; they never display ideas objectively. Therefore they subjectively recreate the situation the photographer attempts to capture based on their underlying social, political, or didactic functions. [344 words]