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Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1879–1940 [Paperback]

by Anne Maxwell

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Book Description

April 1, 2010 1845194152 978-1845194154

This work documents and critically analyses the photographs that helped strengthen, as well as weaken and ultimately bring down, the eugenics movement. Using a large body of racial-type images and a variety of historical and archival sources, and concentrating mainly on developments in Britain, the United States, and Nazi Germany, the author argues that photography, as the most powerful visual medium of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was vital to the eugenics movement’s success as it not only allowed eugenicists to identify the people with superior and inferior hereditary traits, but it helped publicize and lend scientific authority to eugenicists’ racial theories. The author further argues for a strong connection between the racial-type photographs that eugenicists created and the photographic images produced by 19th-century anthropologists and prison authorities, and that the photographic works of contemporary liberal anthropologists played a significant role in the eugenics movement’s downfall. Besides adding to our knowledge of photography's crucial role in helping to authorize and implement some of the most controversial social policies of modern times, this book makes a major contribution to our understanding of the history of racism.

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Editorial Reviews


“Maxwell traces the role of photography in the rise and fall of the eugenics movement. Photos helped promote diverse agendas from British scientist Francis Galton’s first use of the medium to depict the new ‘science’ of human breeding to the Nazis’ justification of their master race ideology and infamous policies. Eugenics also gained popularity in the U.S. in an era of socioeconomic upheaval. The author shows how counter-racial purity images by German anthropologist Franz Boas and African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, among others, led to the discrediting of scientific racism.”  —Reference & Research Book News

“With well over 100 photographs to support the analysis, this examination of the influence of photography on the eugenics movement adds an important chapter to the history of better breeding. Focusing mainly on the UK, U.S., and Germany, Maxwell divides her book into three sections: a history of the movement; how advocates used photographs to educate the public about the need to sterilize the “unfit”; and how a group composed mostly of anthropologists used photographs to refute the arguments made by eugenicists. She notes that in the early 1900s the photograph was seen as capturing reality and revealing truth. The eugenic mug shot, the favourite type of picture used by proponents, reframed reality for those persons already troubled by the social disruption caused by rapid industrialization, and frightened by the increasing number of immigrants who arrived to work in industrial factories. Eugenicists played to the emotions of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who feared that they were losing control of their world. Thus, by placing structural analysis of the visual archive of the movement demonstrates that, in this case, a picture was worth a thousand words. Recommended.”  —Choice

“Anne Maxwell’s book Picture Imperfect provides an excellent introduction to the role of photography in the eugenicist’s propaganda. In her study, Maxwell examines the topic of eugenics through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, and the history of scientific racism. . . . This book is an exceptional examination of the use of photography within the eugenic movement from the end of the nineteenth century up to the start of the Second World War. The numerous photographs selected for inclusion in the text are superb. Their reproduction is very good. For those interested in eugenics and scientific racism this book would be a valuable addition to their library. It is written for the academic and the interested general reader with some knowledge of eugenics.”  —Canadian Journal of History

About the Author

Anne Maxwell is a senior lecturer in the school of culture and communications at the University of Melbourne where she teaches courses on literary criticism and cultural studies. She has published widely in the fields of colonial visual cultures and colonial and postcolonial literature. She is the author of Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the ‘Native’ and the Making of European Identities.

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