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

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

by Phillip Prodger
Oxford University Press, London, UK, 2009
320 pp., illus. 7 col. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0195150315.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA 94704 USA


The idea that context is an important component in both the presentation and nature of empirical studies became popular at the end of the twentieth century and is often considered an outgrowth of Kuhnian paradigms.  With the elevation of paradigmatic perspectives, however, came the quandaries of what contextual research “means” in practice.  Precisely how does the creative mind make the leaps that take us from one way of seeing (and “being in”) the world to another? Case studies, such as Phillip Prodger’s recently released Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution, offer an opportunity to come to terms with this dilemma as we consider a creative mind at work and walk in the shoes of an innovator.  Indeed, the importance of context is a defining theme of Prodger's study, in which he examines Darwin’s strategies for illustrating his books, his interest in art, his studies of book illustrations related to expression and this scientist’s overall approach to the Expressions project, a component of theory of evolution.  As the book outlines the progression of Darwin’s thinking, the reader perceives how this scientist played with ideas, technologies, and information to bootstrap the details of his presentation and, in doing so, made visual artifacts an effective part of his toolbox. More broadly, Prodger shows that when we sequence historical exemplars associated with key moments we can visually weigh how our understanding of the world changes from era to era.  He also explains that images are a legitimate form of documentation in analyzing the problems thinkers faced, evaluating the evidence of how innovators solve the technological limitations at each stage and defining the elusive process of creative accomplishment overall.

More specifically, Darwin’s Camera proposes that Charles Darwin revolutionized the use of photography in science with his publication of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, building on three separate but related traditions:  physiognomy treatises, passion manuals, and anatomical studies.  Toward this end, the book demonstrates that Darwin was looking for pictures at the threshold between what could be seen with the unassisted eye and what could be seen only photographically.  While what he wanted became routine a decade later with the invention of speedy gelatin dry-plate chemistry of the kind used by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) (to analyze the gaits of galloping horses and motion), it was more of an aspiration in Darwin’s time.  [Coincidentally, one of the photographers Darwin worked closely with, Oscar Rejlander (1813-1875), experimented with sequential imagery for the Darwin project, but was unable to produce sequential pictures suitable for his purposes.]

While Darwin’s Camera does a splendid job in conveying how the images Darwin used offered insights on multiple levels, what sets the book apart is that when Prodger shows how Darwin used photography scientifically in presenting his theory of expression, he compels the reader to think about what we mean by evidence, illustration, and objectivity in a larger sense.  Taking us through Darwin’s effort to find suitable prints for the scientific study, Prodger reminds us that Expressions was produced at the cusp of a change in attitudes toward photography.  One reason the time frame is important becomes clear at the end, when the author directly turns to questions about “evidence” and “illustration” in relation to Darwin’s work. Taking on some researchers (e.g., MaryJo Marks, Carol Armstrong and Jennifer Green-Lewis) who have criticized Darwin for fabricating gestures and scientific positivism, Prodger explains that these critics are anachronistic because they apply current views of photographic objectivity to Darwin’s work, rather than understanding the mind and technology of his age. Darwin, of course, wanted his readers to find his photographs convincing. Yet, as Prodger argues, the distinction between “evidence” and “illustration” is blurred in Expressions because there was no precedent for the use and acceptance of photography as scientific data. There was no protocol for the use of empirical photography, precisely because photographers often found it necessary to manipulate their work to enhance not only the visual appeal but also to add clarity to their images.  Indeed, this urge toward clarity and the perspective Darwin brought to his work may have derived from the ethos of drawing for scientific illustration, since drawings have an inevitable degree of interpretation, however objective the artist may attempt to be.

One of the most potent aspects of the study is its sensitivity to the artistry of scientists and the methodology of art in the nineteenth century. Prodger provides a particularly compelling window through which to ponder cross-disciplinary problem-solving and, in this respect, Darwin’s Camera is remarkably unlike and yet curiously similar to Prodger’s earlier Time Stands Still: Muybridge and The Instantaneous Photography (see my Leonardo Review at http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/apr2003/Time_Ione.html).  Similarities include the fact that both books offer insight into photographic innovation, the creative imagination, and experimentation in the nineteenth-century. Time Stands Still captured the history of the quest to translate action into still photography, how it related to Muybridge’s innovations with sequential stills to record action, and provided insight into the trajectory that led to the invention of cinema. Darwin’s Camera, in contrast, focuses in on how Darwin used photographs to tie his theory of evolution with his theory of expression.  With Darwin, Prodger is analyzing an aspiration to combine motion and still photography that dealt with a different set of problems.  Each perspective offers a viable reference point in the development of photography as a scientific tool and a means to consider how both photographers and scientists were wrestling with their desire to portray that which is fleeting. The kernel of the argument in the Darwin study is that this thinker’s examination of how to portray humans and non-human animals expression is an important part in the story of how photography came to be seen as “objective.”

Many of the book’s details add to its value. Comparative photographs from the Darwin archive are used to help us get inside Darwin’s mind and allow us to see what he did to emphasize particular points Prodger wants reader to focus on when reading the text.  Discussions throughout the book also help us look at Darwin’s relationship to Charles Bell, the Scottish anatomist, surgeon, physiologist and artist.  Darwin drew several of his anatomical examples from Bell’s work on expression and took a class from Bell when he studied in Scotland.  I was particularly taken with the discussions related to Darwin’s rejection of Bell's idea that expressions were given by God, an idea quite popular among nineteenth century scientists. Prodger also is well versed on Oscar Rejlander, a photographer unknown to me before I read this book.  While it is clear that Rejlander’s tendency to embellish photographically is now seen as controversial, it is also clear that his work for Darwin included experimentation that Darwin valued precisely for this reason. Darwin did not see it as deceitful, but rather as an effort to push the technology beyond what it was capable of achieving then, at least in a basic sense. One notion related to the Darwin/Rejlander relationship stood out:  Prodger’s suggestion that Muybridge may have read a publication of Rejlander’s outlining his experiments to capture motion.  If Muybridge incorporated ideas published by Rejlander when developing his own motion study techniques, then he is directly linked to both Darwin and Muybridge.  Another notation that showed Prodger’s attention to detail was a reference to Rejlander’s self-portrait Surprised Man, where the author points out that the photographer’s stained fingers show the effects of the silver nitrate used in photographic processing.

Reflecting on the book when I finished it, I debated whether more information about the broader history of photography was necessary for some readers.  Will those who are unacquainted with photographic history conceptualize how important Prodger’s insights are?  When we look at the photograph today, it is easy to overlook the trajectory that has led us here. One iconic image of early photography that came to mind was Louis Daguerre’s “Boulevard du Temple,” taken in late 1838 or early 1839. It is generally characterized as the first photograph ever taken of a person, and it shows the early problems photographers faced in capturing movement. We are told that this lone figure on the deserted street is a deceiving image because what was normally a busy street was “lost” due to the long exposure times of early photography.  In other words, in Daguerre’s image the capture of a person was serendipitous because everything else was moving too fast to register during the ten-minute exposure time needed to imprint the photograph.  The reason the man in the bottom left corner of the plate registered is that he was standing still, getting his boots polished during the entire time the photograph was taken.   This is perhaps the first example of the “motion” problem.

In summary, Darwin’s Camera describes how he worked to capture expressions that happen to quickly for the eye to see and offers a glimpse into how scientific imagery and technological innovation developed hand-in-hand. What sets this volume apart is the discussion of why Darwin’s attitude toward crafting images to illustrate his scientific ideas may seem suspect to us today.  If so, it is because we now assume that the scientific method is about conclusions fitting the data, not about creating data to prove our hypotheses. [Still, even today, we find that scientists highlight areas of the data that support their work.  The false-colored images to which we have become accustomed are designed precisely to highlight what the scientists want us to see.]  Without debating the pros and cons of this development, it is fascinating to think about the introduction of photography in the nineteenth century and how the efforts to capturing fleeting expressions required some degree of contrivance.

Prodger notes that Darwin’s Expressions quickly went out of favor, possibly because the fashions of the models made the book look antiquated.  Nonetheless, Darwin’s contribution to scientific photography was revolutionary.  Even if Expressions did not have a transformational impact comparable to a book like Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which provided a foundation for the modern disciplines of human and comparative anatomy and physiology, Expressions was still is a remarkable achievement, as this pioneering study demonstrates. Both Darwin’s Camera and the recent publication of an annotated edition of Darwin's Expressions by Paul Ekman, (which includes contributions by Prodger as well) attest to Expressions’ current relevance. All in all, Darwin’s Camera is well written and nicely produced. Prodger ably credits Darwin’s contributions to the history of scientific illustration and highlights this scientist’s creative mind from an unusual perspective.  He takes on a novel topic and ultimately says as much about creative thinking, experimental work, and an imaginative mind as he does about Darwin.

Last Updated 1 April, 2010

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