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Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1879–1940 Paperback – April 1, 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1845194154 ISBN-10: 1845194152

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Editorial Reviews

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“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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