Evidence: “Scientific” Photography and Its Discontents

“Astonishment,” Duchenne & Tournachon

Q: When is realism not realism?
A: When it is scientific.

As a trained chemist, I have always been aware that Science, as such, is unrealistic. This probably sounds like an irony. But if one looks into the history of 18th and 19th Century science, one will find it to be true. Laboratory science is by definition isolated and removed from the messiness of “reality.” Even fundamental principles of applied science are often unrealistic. The positive philosophy of Auguste Comte is easily the most influential expression of applied science as a tool to accomplish a most unrealistic goal: namely, to improve the world and humankind.

It sounds marvelous in principle. But what does it mean “to improve”? Comte believed that social progress would be based on ideals of science. He ignored the other side of the coin, which is that science itself is applied to preexisting ideals of social progress.

19th Century Frenchmen often held that their views of a modern society were based on scientific principles. The truth was the converse: scientific exploration was based on 19th Century beliefs about the ideal society. These beliefs were often extremely nationalistic, sexist, racist. Indeed, the very beginnings of the “scientific” rationalization of racism come from this period.

As a method of observation and experiment, positivist science seems neutral. It is not. Accompanying such methods are simultaneous beliefs that the method itself exists to prove whatever reality one chooses to prove with it. In its quest to “modernize” Europe and America (and by dint of imperialism, the world), science chose a tool much-vaunted for its realism and forced that tool to provide “evidence” for notions and prejudices that were antithetical to realism.

Bertillon’s invention, the mugshot.

That tool was photography.

As I wrote in the first part, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire left early 19th Century France in an unstable state. Frenchmen believed that the country was dirty, smelly, chaotic, and needed a complete “refreshment” and the new “deodorized bourgeoisie,” armed with the so-called objectivity of science, began their plans to clean up the city.

This is the social environment into which photography was born. Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot both announced their photographic inventions in 1839 (the daguerreotype and the calotype, respectively). To provide some further context, consider that almost all monarchies around Europe were being challenged in pursuit of new national identities. Nine years earlier the July Revolution had overthrown the Bourbon monarch and nine years later, the February Revolutions would overthrow not only the French monarch but would spread to Germany, Italy, Poland and Austria-Hungary as well.

What Europeans wanted was an odd mixture of “progress” and “modernization” yet also “stability” and a reaffirmation of the Enlightenment values of an orderly universe designed by divinity. Science conveniently bridged both desires, and photography abetted the enterprise with its apparent “objectivity.”

Because camera equipment required special training and was far from cheap, photographers of the time were either independently wealthy or supported by government finance. The French, in fact, held a licensing patent on photographic processes that helped their government sponsor scientific uses of photography.

E. Thiésson, Native of Sofala, 30 years

One of these was ethnographic photography. As early as 1844 E. Thiésson had begun to photograph natives in Brazil and Mozambique. He omitted all details about them, anything that might make them appear to be individuals, and reduced them to “types.” Five years later, Joseph Zealy began documenting slaves in America using a similar method. Within fifteen years, governments around the world were sailing the globe for the opportunity to catalog humankind in “objective portraits.” This typing of “exotics” naturally served the imperial agenda of the new nationalism in Europe and America, and whatever racist prejudices photographers had were embedded in such projects.

That much is well-known, and obvious. What is less obvious in these photographs is that they are driven by a deeper belief: that moral character manifests itself physically in a person. Morally repulsive people are physically repulsive. People who smell foul are foul people. People with dark skin have dark souls.

You might find this absurd. It comes from one of the most quoted and influential scientific texts of the late 18th Century: J.C. Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy, Designed to Promote the Knowledge and Love of Mankind. Physiognomy and its sister science phrenology were deeply influential in 19th Century France. It is not pure coincidence that Lavater’s book was republished at least six times in France from 1803 to 1845.

In the book, Lavater spends an entire chapter discussing “On the Harmony Between Moral and Corporeal Beauty.” The most germane quote is his theorem, “The beauty and deformity of the countenance is in a just and determinate proportion to the moral beauty and deformity of the man. The morally best, the most beautiful. The morally worst, the most deformed.” In other words, beautiful people are good people; ugly people are bad people.

The program of ethnographic photography is to prove all this “scientifically.” By photographing the entire species, the bourgeois Frenchman, or Englishman, or American, or German, or ______ can prove that his race (read: his nation’s people) is superior to others by virtue of physical beauty. And naturally the standard of beauty is the Apollo Belvedere.

You probably think I’m kidding. I’m not. The chapter on animal lineage contains the following helpful drawings.

And for further emphasis: I’ll read the preceding page for you so you can locate yourself on the scale:

12. begins the lowest degree of humanity: the angle of the countenance is indeed not much larger than sixty degrees, very little raised above brutality, yet nearer to the negro than the orang-outang; and the projecting nose and defined lips decisively indicate commencing humanity. 13. Expresses weak limited humanity; the eye and forehead are not yet sufficiently human. 14. has the expression of benevolent weakness. 15. has all the attributes of humanity, and the angle of the countenance contains seventy degrees.

Perhaps this seems unscientific to our oh-so-sophisticated contemporary eyes. Let us move on then to something which we still use in contemporary society: the work of Alphonse Bertillon. In response to what he saw as the degradation of Paris by crime, Bertillon created a massive filing system for criminals. At its heart was a biometric system which he called anthropométrie. Virtually all modern criminology is based on this system of measuring the body of the suspect, with special emphasis placed upon ears. Bertillon placed pre-eminent trust in photography, devising a system of mugshot photography that remains the standard to this very day in American criminal justice.

Bertillon’s own anthropométrie card

The premises of this system are exactly the same as Lavater’s. Criminals are not individuals but types, and only with a thoroughly typological system can one understand and control crime. And they are ugly types, thus proving their moral corruption. Measure a person’s forehead, inspect their ears, gauge the angle of the nose and voila!–instant criminal, neatly located in a structural grid of race, gender, class, inclination, and morality.

Francis Galton went even further. His system of eugenics was based on photographic “evidence” as well. Galton believed that by laying photograph upon photograph and creating composite portraits, one could find the essentials of all types of human beings. One could tell who was going to be a criminal by analyzing their features as children. One could tell who would catch syphilis and who would carry it. One could tell who were geniuses destined to save the entire English race from the oblivion of miscegenation and other such horrors.

Composite photographs of “types”

Beyond its obvious racism, such typing was also a tool for the massive oppression of individuals in European society. It is perhaps less obvious but even the industry of middle class portraiture relied upon the same fundamental belief as the criminological photography of Bertillon and the ethnographic photography of Thiésson, Zealy, Prince Roland Bonaparte, John Thomson and others. (Some would add Edward S. Curtis, but that case is more complex.) That belief was that a person’s character was plainly visible in their exterior appearance. And yet such photography served equally to reduce even its bourgeois patrons to types.

This is perhaps most obvious in the industry of cartes de visites. Kicked into high gear by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, the carte de visite photograph served as a calling card announcing a person to a visitor, indeed to the world itself. Yet despite claiming to represent the individual, the photographic style is so completely rigid that it reduces its subjects also to mere types. One is indistinguishable from another: the same stupid costumes, the same formal poses, the same sterile sets. The visual vocabulary is painful, even when it treats supposedly exotic individuals like actors and dancers.

“Typical” carte-de-visite

The persistent belief in physical manifestations of morality also became the rallying cry behind the National Socialists of the 20th Century and their hatred of “degenerate art.” Nazi beliefs are generally thought of as some shocking discontinuity in the 20th Century. In reality, most of the beliefs about purity, cleanliness, racism and degeneracy come from the 19th Century and are well-represented in photography.

The term “degenerate art” comes indirectly from Max Nordau’s 1892 book, Entartung. In it, Nordau set out to investigate that degeneracy was a contagious disease, both moral and physical. What he considered degenerate was, naturally, every aesthetic movement of the 19th Century:

This is the natural history of the aesthetic schools. Under the influence of an obsession, a degenerate mind promulgates some doctrine or other: realism, pornography, mysticism, symbolism, diabolism. He does this with vehement penetrating eloquence, with eagerness and fiery heedlessness. Other degenerate, hysterical, neurasthenical minds flock around him, receive from his lips the new doctrine, and live thenceforth only to propagate it.

One can only imagine what he would have thought of the 20th Century. Still the connection is clear: realism is a disease, and diseases are threats to society, things to be extinguished by science in its quest for a powder-fresh universe. Similar to Lavater and Bertillon, he held firm the belief that moral character was represented by physical attributes, but went even further. He opined that degeneracy was not only contagious to individuals but to whole nations.

Note the Negro/Jewish/Gypsy stereotyping

That Nordau was Jewish did not seem to matter much to the Nazis who appropriated his beliefs in their attempt to “modernize” the world in their own inimitable way, with the essentially same belief: the world was dirty, smelly and chaotic and needed to be deodorized just the same as the Great Stink of Paris and London. It is not accidental they referred to their plan as ethnic cleansing. Cleanliness was not next to godliness; it was godliness itself.

Duchenne de Boulogne believed that faces could express the internal states of individuals. He put electric probes into subject’s faces to catalog what was possibly in voluntary and involuntary human expression. But he fundamentally held skeptical that external signs were genuine proof of anything. The ethnographic photographers and criminological photographers like Bertillon on the other hand believed it wholeheartedly. They erased all trace of individual expression by erasing individuality, reducing the faces of individuals to a series of “types” — blank faces onto which meaning was projected by an onlooker. Character was not read from the face but rather hung on it like a decoration. The human head was a hat rack on which prejudices were hung. The tenets of Nazism were simply an outgrowth of the logical belief in all this ostensibly scientific analysis by that most scientific of instruments, the camera.

This belief, and the photography that supports it, is the very definition of totalitarian kitsch. Quoting Kundera again:

When I say “totalitarian” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree, “Be fruitful and multiply.” In this light, we can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse.

People have been mythologizing the omniscience of the camera and its objectivity for almost two centuries now. Cameras never lie, etc, etc, etc. But like its partner in crime Science with a capital-S, cameras depend very much on their users. While some may consider the photography of the 19th Century to be an outgrowth of a natural penchant for realism, rarely do those same people discuss what reality is at stake.

Manet, Olympia

Above all, realism is an attitude of an artist and a conviction to remind the bourgeoisie of social reality. Flaubert once said the aim of realism was to convince people to “let diarrhea drip into your boots, piss out of the window, shout out ‘shit,’ defecate in full view, fart hard, belch in people’s faces.” The realist painters like Daumier, Manet, and Courbet used realism to bring back the stench of shit into the Parisian fantasy of a deodorized universe. Surveying the photographers of the 19th Century one would be hard pressed to find any such thing, until the rise of mass pornography and the publication of Jacob Riis’s books. All one would find would be a reaffirmation of the bourgeois, the love of the modern order, a phony notion of progress through science. The categorical objection to shit drives it all, from 1839 all the way into 1933, World War II, and beyond.

Categories Visual Arts

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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