Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2010
Phillip Prodger Darwin's Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 320 pp.; 7 color ills.; 106 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780195150315)

In 1872, Victorian readers were presented with Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The work notably attempted to extend the great naturalist’s theory of evolution through natural selection to understanding the developmental history of expression. In support of Darwin’s attempt to provide evolutionary explanations for the physical manifestation of emotions, the book made considerable use of photographic material; and so it became one of the first scientific works to deploy the technology, despite being published just over three decades since both Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot had announced their discoveries to a broader public. Building on considerable previous interest in Expression, Phillip Prodger’s Darwin’s Camera aims to trace how Darwin “became a prominent voice in scientific photography” (xxiii) and made “significant inroads in action photography” (xxiv).

Extensively illustrated, Prodger’s book reproduces the plates and images from Expression and the unedited originals of a number of photographs from the Darwin archive. Divided into fourteen short chapters, the book pays particular attention to Darwin’s art collection, along with his broader knowledge of art history and Victorian aesthetic theories, illustrative strategies, and relationship with Oscar Rejlander. In addition, it examines the associations between Expression and passion manuals as well as photographs of expressive babies and the insane. In doing so, Prodger aims to establish Darwin as far more visually educated than he has often been argued to be. Moreover, by documenting Darwin’s use of novel photographic techniques, such as heliotypy, Prodger attempts to recapture just how innovative Expression appeared to its first readers.

In Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Jonathan Smith argues that when Darwin’s entire corpus of published works is considered one can see that it was extensively illustrated with a variety of techniques, from wood engraving to heliotypy. Smith further observed that Darwin played an often underestimated role in choosing and editing these illustrations and called for a reassessment of Darwin’s use of visual technologies and his relationship to broader trends in Victorian visual culture. Most recently, Diana Donald and Jane Munro’s Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [click here for review]) and Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer’s The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2009) have affirmed significant scholarly interest in Darwin’s relationship to the visual arts. Following in this vein, Prodger’s Darwin’s Camera provides an extended discussion of Darwin as a collector and user of various photographic media. Anyone even vaguely acquainted with Darwin’s research practices will be aware of his penchant for collecting—be it books, natural history specimens, or seemingly trivial facts (such as how far blushing extends down the body)—in his quest to flesh out the details of his evolutionary theory. Prodger now shows the considerable lengths to which Darwin went to procure photographs that he felt were useful in illustrating the natural history of expressions. Whether requesting copies of work he admired for its accuracy or utility, commissioning new photographs, or haunting metropolitan shops in search of photographs that captured the isolated contraction of muscles that created any given expression, Darwin clearly valued photography and its potential to provide suitable confirmations of his theoretical proposals and illustrations for his published writings.

Prodger examines Darwin’s selection of different visual technologies, his commissioning of photographs to order (most obviously from Rejlander, Darwin’s “favourite photographer”), and the range of carefully deliberated choices involved in illustrating his work. For instance, when deciding how best to illustrate Expression, Darwin could have chosen to have original photographs tipped into the finished book; however, he pressed John Murray to use heliotypes, then an innovative means of photomechanical reproduction, as a cheaper alternative, thereby allowing Darwin an “unprecedented number of photographs” in his book (109). Prodger’s detailed account of how Darwin negotiated his needs as well as those of his publisher and suppliers provides an interesting confirmation of just how involved Darwin became in procuring and editing visual materials for his published writings.

Darwin’s holy grail, so to speak, was photographs in which it was possible to see the action from individual muscle groups in the different phases of an expression. In his search, Darwin made considerable technical demands of those he commissioned to produce photographs, often in vain since the short exposure times necessary for such images were simply unavailable in this period. Thus, Prodger suggests, his collaboration with Rejlander proved particularly fruitful in pushing the technical possibilities of photography and partly helped establish Rejlander’s contemporary reputation as an innovative and important photographer. Where the technical limitations proved too great, Darwin would frequently use simulated or staged photographs in an effort to procure examples he felt were accurate. Perhaps Prodger’s most important point emerges in his discussion of this practice. As he notes, many have characterised Darwin’s use of such images as deceptive, manipulative, or compromising objectivity. Yet Prodger forcefully argues that such claims are essentially using anachronistic standards of what constitutes photographic objectivity and so fail to understand how the use of photographs as scientific evidence was evaluated in Darwin’s day. The “distinction between ‘evidence’ and ‘illustration’ is blurred in the book,” he explains, “because there was no precedent for the acceptance of photography as scientific data.” Expression “could not conform to rules about” the use of scientific photography “because it was part of the creation of those rules in the first place” (220). Given this line of argument, Prodger rather surprisingly omits an extended discussion of what his work contributes to broader historiographical debates on observational objectivity, stimulated by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s work.

Ultimately, Prodger enthusiastically claims that Darwin’s “contributions to many fields—evolution, botany, geology, botany, and psychology among them—are widely known. Now we must add his decisive influence on the history of art to his impressive list of accomplishments” (xxv). In addition to his discussion of action photography in earlier chapters, he spends the final chapter of Darwin’s Camera examining Darwin’s influence on authors, artists, and photographers. Among others, he lists approving nods to Darwin’s work from art historians Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassier, an offer to collaborate on future projects from author Lewis Carroll, Francis Galton’s use of composite photography to create idealized typological exemplars of racial and moral differences, and the chronophotography movement of the 1880s. While this list may appear impressive, as Prodger himself notes, “such pockets of influence were surprisingly rare” and it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that Expression “was rediscovered” and subsequently “recognised as a landmark in various fields it engages” (219). Given the relative expense of Darwin’s book and its failure to sell in considerable numbers when initially published, this aspect of Prodger’s argument is unconvincing, not only with respect to the wider reception of Expression in 1872 but also to its fortunes in the twentieth century. Indeed, the rarity of such “influence” only seems surprising if one misleadingly expects the book’s later reputation to be representative of its initial reception or Darwin’s iconic status as sufficient grounds to secure its place in the canon of art history. In order to make such a claim one would expect a much more extended discussion of reception than is presented in Prodger’s final chapter. Given the claim regarding Darwin’s influence, it is especially disappointing that Prodger does not provide a fuller account of the book’s reception or engage with important work on the reading public and scientific publishing such as James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Prodger’s argument would have been considerably stronger had he been able to trace direct appropriations of Darwin’s photographs or, even more powerfully, his illustrative techniques by this list of devotees or other figures. In the absence of such evidence, the final chapter lists a number of individuals for whom Darwin’s use of photographic material may have been notable; nonetheless, Darwin’s impact on photography still appears rather more limited than Prodger proposes.

Darwin’s Camera is most likely to find an audience among those searching for an introduction to the photographs used in Expression combined with an extended and detailed account of Darwin’s collection and use of photography in his research. Prodger builds on familiar ground in this field, both in his own previous work and broader discussions on the reception of Expression and its use of photomechanical reproduction. In doing so, he contributes to ongoing interest in Darwin’s use of and impact on the visual arts. Most helpfully, by drawing attention to the unstable status of scientific photography in the 1870s, his book is a reminder that far too many have dismissed the possible scientific value of Darwin’s work on anachronistic grounds. Prodger thus seeks to establish Darwin as a much more significant figure in the history of photography. Whether he succeeds remains to be seen.

Sadiah Qureshi
Research Associate, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University