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  • Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric by Robert Bogdan
  • Melinda C. Hall (bio)
Robert Bogdan , with Martin Elks and James A. Knoll, Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2012. ISBN 978-0815633020. 312 pp. $55.00

Picturing Disability presents nine genres of "disability photography" in a remarkable collection of 223 illustrations. Photos included range across more than a century, from the 1860s to the 1970s. The contribution of this work to the field of disability studies cannot be overstated, largely because of the scarcity of books on disability with a similar historical scope. Most photographs included are rare and published for a general audience for the first time. They feature persons with disabilities in advertisements, at home, on exhibit, and in institutions. Robert Bogdan dedicated years to the pursuit of images held in private collections and amassed his own archive of one-of-a-kind photographs. His extensive research and accompanying text place these pictures in their historical framework by stressing the intent of those behind the camera and their varied techniques, props, and conventions.

Bogdan writes that "all" photographs "contain a visual rhetoric, patterns of conventions that have a distinct style that cast the subjects in a particular way" (2). He seeks to discover and share these patterns, thereby laying bare why photographs were created and how they differ from one another based on their intended purpose. This focus on social context, Bogdan claims, differentiates his work from other studies of disability images. While Picturing Disability does not present an overarching theme or thesis, highlighting social context unveils the changing rhetorical construction of disability images. Bogdan also situates included images within the framework of technology used and available at the time of their creation. For instance, he explains the rise of the photo postcard and the way that these artifacts were collected by those who sent and received them. In light of this trend, he argues, the images of asylums common on photo postcards were not remarkable to senders or recipients as anything other than local landmarks. Bogdan's knowledge of the conventions of photography is also particularly fruitful in his close study of "freak portraits," which he divides into "aggrandizing" and "exotic" modes—this division yields new information regarding how images of persons with disabilities were marketed and sold in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His introduction describes in some detail the technical variety of images included, from cartes de visite and cabinet cards to publicity and news photos.

The chapters are written as individual photo essays. They cover "freak [End Page 121] portraits," photographs created in connection with circuses and sideshows from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries; "begging cards," offered by disabled persons seeking donations or sold as small commodities from roughly 1870 to 1930 (prior to the rise of charitable organizations); photographs created and used by charitable organizations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; images of asylums from the early twentieth century, when they were subject to both veneration as local landmarks and scrutiny from concerned journalists; clinical photographs of persons with disabilities from the eugenics era; advertisements featuring persons with disabilities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; movie stills featuring non-disabled persons acting in disabled roles from the twentieth century; art photography from the twentieth century; and turn-of-the-century private family photographs. The images originate in the United States only and do not include people of color, facts Bogdan hopes to remedy in future work.

The information presented in Picturing Disability is all the better for its diversity. Appearing here, among many others, are famous photographer Diane Arbus, whose work figures persons with disabilities as "freaks" and "outsiders" whose representations bring us into "Hades," and Johnny Roventine, whose image—thought endearing and approachable—was used in advertisements for Philip Morris. The authors' treatment of Arbus and Roventine is typical of the careful consideration given throughout the book of persons in vastly different roles creating the visual rhetoric of disability.1

Although the majority of Picturing Disability is the work of Bogdan, the two excellent chapters written by the other contributors deserve special mention. Martin Elks...


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pp. 121-124
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