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  • Photographic Simulation and Nineteenth-Century Expression
  • Lindsay Smith (bio)
Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution, by Phillip Prodger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 320. 7 color illustrations, 106 b & w illustrations. $39.95 cloth.

In October 1843, predating William Henry Fox Talbot’s celebrated The Pencil of Nature, which began to appear in installments in June of the following year, Anna Atkins (1799–1871) published Part I of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. It was the first photographically illustrated book in Britain. The only daughter of the scientist John George Children, Atkins used the cyanotype process, developed by John Herschel, to document specimens of algae she had collected. She was motivated to do so by a desire to record botanical minutiae that might be missed by other media. Atkins’s methods of generating cyanotypes, which involved washing, drying, and arranging hundreds of delicate specimens of seaweed and preparing sheets of cyanotype paper, were in their own ways as painstaking as Herschel’s chemical researches. The delicate photograms lent an incomparable transparency to the tender plant life reproduced. Facilitating a sort of seeing through the object, somewhat like the revelatory eye of a microscope, the cyanotype medium bestowed upon the observer’s visual capacity a type of extra dimension. Scientific rationalization and faithful reproduction were at the heart of Atkins’s project. When twenty-nine years later, in 1872, Charles Darwin published his photographically illustrated On the Expression [End Page 167] of the Emotion in Man and Animals, photography was an established medium, having undergone huge developments. The albumen prints of facial expression in Darwin’s text seem a far cry from Herschel’s haunting blue process that would achieve long-term cultural relevance in the form of the architectural blueprint. Indeed, while the latter records unique originals that stress the fragile substance of its objects, the former presents an infinitely reproducible medium that generates by the 1870s a more familiar monochromatic schema of browns. Yet in the historical and material distance between these two moments, and two very distinct photographic processes, a number of conceptual and philosophical debates had come to determine the ontological status of the photographic medium. At the same time, the ability of a photograph to uniquely make present an object, to render it with an unprecedented degree of veracity, remained a source of fascination for Darwin as he embraced it in 1872, as it had been for Atkins in 1843.

Phillip Prodger’s fascinating, intricately researched, and beautifully produced book Darwin’s Camera inhabits vital aspects of these four decades of photography. Indeed, the somewhat happy coincidence of Darwin’s publication of Voyage of the Beagle in 1839 with the patenting of the daguerreotype in Paris, along with Talbot’s announcement of photography in England, marks the beginning of what would become a developing correspondence between Darwin’s scientific career and the photographic medium. While The Expression was Darwin’s first and only photographically illustrated book, Prodger demonstrates that its content evolved over a considerable period of time. Darwin drew heavily on his notebooks labeled “M” and “N” that record his ideas about emotional expression. the first of which he began in 1838 and the second in 1856, three years before the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin also collected visual images, both as a means of cataloging examples of facial expressions (as data) and also with a view to using them as illustrations in his work. The Expression culminated in thirty photographs and a number of wood engravings. Some of the photographs were produced specifically for the project, while others Darwin sourced from a range of places, including the London Stereoscopic Company, English regional firms, and French, Italian, and American firms. Many of these images, including forty-one that Prodger believes were “bought specifically for their expressive content” (9), are collected in the Cambridge University Library and, along with thousands of letters, manuscripts, edited proofs, and newspaper clippings, provide the rich archive for [End Page 168] Darwin’s Camera. The Darwin Correspondence Project that has so far only dealt with written material has also enabled Prodger to situate the fascinating project of The Expression within the context...


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pp. 167-174
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