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Benton Evening News - Benton, IL
  • Photo curator's book sees Darwin's work through a different lens

  • Phillip Prodger, photography curator at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, has published a book exploring Charles Darwin’s use of photography in his research on the origins and commonality of life.

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  • Why is this man smiling?
    Phillip Prodger, photography curator at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, has published a book exploring Charles Darwin’s use of photography in his research on the origins and commonality of life.
    Prodger’s new book, “Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in The Theory of Evolution,” explores how Darwin collaborated with photographer Oscar Rejlander to document traits such as emotions to gain better understanding of the relationship of human beings to other living creatures.
    With images of men, women and children showing joy, grief, anger and wonderment in Darwin’s compilation, “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Prodger argues that the collaboration between Darwin and Rejlander changed attitudes towards photography from a stiff and formal affair to a way to explore a subject’s personality.
    Prodger talks about his quest to understand Darwin and his times as seen through the lens of the past.
    Q. How did the idea for this book come about?
    A. As an undergrad, I took a photography studio class. The professor liked to use as an example a photo Oscar Rejlander did for Darwin. No one had written about this before, so I thought this was a perfect opportunity. It is something I have been working on for at least 15 years. It is an idea that never let go of me — how the way a great scientist used photography changed expectations of how photos are used.
    Q. Please explain more about the role photography played in Darwin’s work.
    A. Darwin was a collector. When he was on the voyage of the Beagle, he did a lot of collecting of birds. Later, he got interested in emotional expression. You can’t easily collect that, so he had to find a way. His way was through photography.
    Q. Why was emotional expression important for him to document?
    A. He was really interested during this time in muscle movement in the face. The photos allowed him to pick out muscle movement. This was interesting to him because he believed emotional expression came from animal emotions. It was as controversial as he ever got — the idea that human expression was derived from animals. He was really getting at questions such as what does it mean to be alive, and what does it mean to be sentient. 
    Q. At this time, photos were mostly a formal affair. It seems it wasn’t considered proper to photograph people in candid ways. Is there a class divide reflected — whereby it is acceptable to photograph lower class people or minorities in this way?
    A. I don’t think so, and I will tell you why. Darwin was fiercely anti-slavery. One of his early teachers was black. There wasn’t a racist bone in his body. He was interested in things he thought were universal … as far as the models were concerned, the number one model was the photographer himself.
    Page 2 of 2 - Q. In your research, did you come across discoveries you didn’t expect?
    A. Every day I went to the archive at Cambridge University, I found things I didn’t expect at all. It was so rewarding to work on it. There are just amazing stories in the book. For example, no one knew that the author Lewis Carroll had tried to work with Darwin on this project. He sent Darwin a picture from his archive of what he thought was a really expressive photograph. The fact that these two great figures were in touch is just an amazing little convergence.
    Q. It seems this was a time of great literary figures, as well as great social and scientific movement. Where do you see Darwin in this context?
    A. At this time in history, there were not clear distinctions in fields. Even the idea of a scientist wasn’t a distinct field. Darwin didn’t just talk to other scientists. He talked to barbers, pigeon breeders, orchid breeders — he would just go for it. One amusing story tells how Darwin was trying to understand whether women blushed below the head. He talked to two categories of people who saw women in the nude — doctors, and artists. 
    Q. This past year has seen two significant anniversaries for Darwin — the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “Origin of Species.” What did your research reveal about Darwin as a person and product of his times?
    A. He was such a sympathetic character — a warm and generous man. He was one of the smartest people who ever lived. 
    Q. Does your project take on added poignancy given that the debate about the origin of life is ongoing?
    A. A lot of greater minds have written about evolution. That wasn’t really my idea in this book. This is a book that lets you enjoy knowing more about him, whether you agree or disagree with him.
    “Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution,” by Phillip Prodger. Oxford University Press. $39.95 Hardcover.
    Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at Gate House Media New England's Northwest Unit. Contact her at msmith@cnc.com.
     
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