- Darwin's Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution
The idea that context is an important component in both the presentation and nature of empirical studies became popular at the end of the 20th 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 his overall approach to the Expression of Emotions project, a component of the 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 have 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 only be seen 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 with whom Darwin worked closely, Oscar Rejlander [1813-1875], experimented with sequential imagery for the Darwin project, but was unable to produce sequential pictures suitable for this purpose.)
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 Expression was produced at the cusp of a change in attitudes toward photography. One reason the timeframe is important becomes clear at the end, when the author turns directly 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 argue anachronistically 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 Expression because there was no precedent for the use and acceptance of photography...