Darwin’s Camera by Phillip Prodger

Last night it was my pleasure to attend the monthly meeting of the Essex County Ornithological Club held at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. After narrowly avoiding being elected president of the gathered group, as I was an unfamiliar face, and hearing some notes on bird behavior, it was time for the featured presentation. The guest speaker was Mr. Phillip Prodger, the museum’s curator of photography who has just published a book on Darwin’s use of and influence on photography.

The image at left was the focus of the talk. Darwin was very interested in capturing and studying human and animal emotion. He commissioned a prominent London photographer, Oscar Rejlander, to illustrate his book on the subject. But, as this was 1871 and there was no good flash photography, he had to fake it.

Rejlander started with a picture of a crying baby, then he blew it up and redrew it in chalk and rephotographed it. It fooled everyone. The book sold 10000 copies, but this weird photo sold 300000. People were desperate for instantaneous images and it also caught the zeitgeist of the time: people mistook it for a picture of a popular dreadful Victorian novel about a miserable baby.

Popular culture at the time took the image and ran with it, mostly into the maudlin gutter. People wanted this image of a crying baby the way they want today, I guess, Demi Lovato. Prodger’s analogy was to Pokemon cards, but very few adults collect those. What people collect most- i think- are images of their own babies and pets and selves on their websites and gadgets. Perhaps in the 1870s this lifelike baby picture was as close as they could get?

In college, I was fascinated with this image from 1840 by Hippolyte Bayard:
This is a political self portrait from less than ten years after the invention of photography. The post modern sensibility found in Cindy Sherman’s contemporary self portraits emerged as soon as there were cameras.

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Author: Emily

Writer/ Librarian

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