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Picture Imperfect

Photography and Eugenics, 1879–1940

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. Her previous book was Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the ‘Native’ and the Making of European Identities.

Picture Imperfect documents and critically analyses the photographs that helped strengthen as well as 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 USA and Nazi Germany, the author argues that photography, as the most powerful visual medium of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was vital to the Eugenics Movement’s success – not only did it allow eugenicists to identify the people with superior and inferior hereditary traits, but it helped publicise 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 nineteenth-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 authorise 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.

Most accounts of eugenics have been written by history of science scholars, with an emphasis on the history of science and medicine. In contrast, Picture Imperfect looks at eugenics from the standpoint of its most significant cultural data – racial-type photography, investigating the techniques, media forms, and styles of photography used by eugenicists, and relating these to their racial theories and their social policies and goals. Indeed, the visual archive was crucially constitutive of eugenic racial science because it helped make many of its concepts appear both intuitive as well as scientifically legitimate.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-239-6
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $79.50
Release Date: October 2007
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-415-4
Paperback Price: £24.95 / $45.00
Release Date: April 2010
Page Extent / Format: 272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: with 120 racial-type photographic images


Part I Historical Context
Racial-type Photographs in the Colonial Period
The Degenerate Face: Nineteenth-Century Prison Photographs

Part II Emergence of Eugenic Photography
The Eugenics Movement Begins: Galton and the Races of Britain
Building a Healthy Nation: Eugenic Images in the United States, 1890–1935
Creating the Master Race: Photography and Racial Selection in Germany
Sub-Human Versus the Master Race: Racial-type Photographs and Nazi Party Propaganda

Part III Counter Images
Eugenics Under Fire: the Racial-type Imagery of Boas, Du Bois, Huxley and Hadden



Building on her Colonial Photography and Exhibitions, 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, US, 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.

The use of images to convince the public, politicians, and medical and social welfare professionals of the danger of atavistic degenerates and defectives was a critical tool in the early twentieth-century eugenicists’ arsenal. 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

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