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Book Review

Book Review – Darwin’s Camera by Phillip Prodger

Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution 

2009

Phillip Prodger

 

I came to Prodger’s book trawling for quotations for my own academic work on the history of photography and was therefore a different reader from the generalist that the book appeals to. However, as I read, I became aware of the admirable way in which Prodger tells the story of perhaps the first photographic illustration of books in scientific history. The style was engaging and the book was very well-researched. While there was much to think over, I was particularly interested in the sections on O. J. Rejlander, the eccentric photographer who provided most of the illustrations for Darwin’s  Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871).

 

Prodger’s intent is to tell, on the small scale, the larger story of how the photograph came to hold a privileged position in scientific discourse by investigating its first instance. Here, he makes interesting observations. He points out, for instance, that Darwin and Rejlander’s understanding of the photograph was entirely different from our own. For us, the photographs of expressions would have been the data which we would analyse to pull out theories about the relationships between evolution and expression. For the two Victorians, the photographs merely confirmed their preconceived ideas about expression – they would only select the photographs which confirmed the theories in the case. Hence, the Victorian mindset about the interpretation and potential of the photograph was very different from our own. Similarly, the scientist and the photographer staged the photographs – given the length of exposure time it was impossible to catch the fleeting expression of real emotions. There was therefore a very different idea of ‘truth’ attached to the photographic image.

 

While the reading of Prodger’s book was an enjoyable experience, I was disappointed that he did not fully set out the status of the photograph at the time that Darwin had his innovative idea to illustrate his scientific theories, which I had thought was crucial. Also, he does not present primary sources about the reception of Darwin’s book. For example, it is telling that in Jonathan Smith’s Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture, that a source from a periodical at the time criticizes Darwin because he has used photographs to illustrate his book and not works of art, which hold ‘true’ expressions. Sources such as the latter illustrate how different and innovative Darwin’s ideas of photographic illustration for his theories were, how much of a departure from conventional thinking at the time.

 

Written for the generalist, Prodger’s tome is definitely worth a read. However, for the specialist (which I am, sad to say), it is a disappointing read. Although, it must be confessed, I was able to retrieve a few useful quotations, which was, after all, what I came looking for.

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