The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Right
At the turn of the 21st century, as federal organizations and private corporations were competing against each other in the race to decode the human genome, a number of exhibitions that explored areas where genetic science and visual imagery overlapped were mounted. One of the best of them, a small and provocative exhibition titled Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography, was organized by Carol Squiers, a curator at the International Center of Photography.
The exhibition tracked how interest in eugenics, a 19th-century pseudoscience of human breeding, became widespread in the 20th century, to disastrous ends. The eugenics movement was fueled and often supported by various types of “objective” photographic images that were made and distributed with the goal of proving that the human race could and should be “perfected.” From images made by Alphonse Bertillon, the criminologist who helped develop the mug shot, to propagandistic photographs of Aryans produced by the Nazis, photography proved to be a powerful tool, useful for convincing viewers that certain should live and breed and others shouldn’t for the sake of, as Freud described in 1909, “the betterment of the world.”
While Eugenics had its adherents worldwide, Carol Squiers, in her newly published story for click!, reminds us that the movement was popular, too, in the United States, where “Perfect Babies” contests were wildly popular and generated some dubious and curious photographs. To read and see more, click here.