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'Perfecting Mankind' Exhibition: It's Not a Pretty Ideological Picture

Photography: Dense and disturbing New York show focuses on history of ideas behind the mass psychology that was exploited by the Nazis.


NEW YORK — Long before the words "gene" and "genome" were a matter of daily parlance, "eugenics"--derived from the Greek, meaning "good in birth"--was coined in 1883 by Englishman Francis Galton. Galton invented a new "science" designed to safeguard the breeding of the human animal. Extrapolating from his cousin Charles Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest, Galton's aim was the survival of the most desirable.

"Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography," a dense and disturbing one-room exhibition at New York's International Center of Photography, explores the way photography was used to spread Galton's ideas to America and Germany in the years leading up to World War II.

Galton invented a technique of multiple-exposure composite portraiture meant to establish "pictorial statistics" describing fit and unfit humans. He made composites of criminals, enlisted men, officers of the Royal Engineers, tubercular patients and "the modern Jewish type."

Although the exhibition does not include any of Galton's portraits, it does include works by his followers, among them Boston physician H.P. Bowditch (1840-1911), a professor of physiology and dean of the Harvard Medical School. Bowditch simulated Galton's technique by sandwiching together negatives taken with a box camera. His subjects were groups of Boston horse-car drivers, conductors and doctors whose composite portraits he interpreted to be indications of a hierarchy of "racial" types, with his peers at the top of the list.

"People who were most insistent on the eugenic message were all bigots of one stripe or another," says Carol Squiers, the exhibition's curator. "Still, they were not as concerned with race as they were with class. Race meant something different than it does now. Anglo-Saxons didn't like the huge wave of immigration of Mediterranean 'races' that was going to 'weaken' the gene pool."

The exhibition follows eugenics' trail into the mainstream with photographs of the winners of the Fitter Family and Better Baby contests in the first part of the century. In the words of one contest organizer at a county fair, "While the stock judges are testing the Holsteins, Jerseys and whitefaces in the stock pavilion, we are judging the Joneses, Smiths & the Johns." The straightforward pictures of the winners show remarkably ordinary, if middle-class and WASP, babies and families.

The flip side of promoting these exemplars of human breeding was the ferreting out of the unfit. Popular publications made much of a research approach known as family studies, genealogies that tended to support the notion that poverty and criminality were inherited biological traits. By the late 1930s, more than half of the states had passed eugenic sterilization laws.

The exhibition shows the work of one unknown researcher who in 1921 produced a handwritten genealogical chart of "the Tribe of Ishmael" that traced the lineage of a "diseased" man procreating with a "half-breed" Indian woman. The proof of the "horrific" results comes in the form of photographs--of a dilapidated dwelling captioned in one photo as a "Central Gathering Place of Ishmael Thieves and Prostitutes."

Photographs Used to Promote Aryan Ideals

Support for eugenics came from a remarkable array of the ruling elite and the walls of the exhibition are lined with quotes in support of the movement. President Coolidge stated that "racial considerations" were "too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons." Squiers notes, "The people who saw themselves as uniquely fit to exert control wanted to exert it."

The second half of Squiers' exhibition heads to Germany, where Galton's ideas fed a centuries-old notion of the purity and virtue of the German "Volk." In the aftermath of World War I, the Weimar Republic employed a number of German and Jewish eugenicists to create a genetic blueprint for rebuilding a devastated Germany. Copies of slides used in a lecture identify degenerates: "Three Idiots," "Paranoid Alcoholic" and a young woman labeled "Good-natured manic state."

In the 1920s, two German photographers, Erna Lendvai-Dircksen and Erich Retzlaff cataloged young men and women dressed in regional costumes to create a kind of field guide to German "Volk." Lendvai-Dircksen later joined the Nazi party, compiling her photographs into books used to promote Aryan ideals.

Although there is no direct evidence that the Nazis used Retzlaff's skills, his work was widely published and his dramatic, high-contrast close-ups, such as a 1938 portrait, "Blast-furnace Worker" was emulated by the Nazi propagandists.

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