Photography in Yale Darwin Exhibit
18 April 2009
"Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts"
Yale Center for British Art, Feb. 12 - May 3, 2009.
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, June 16- Oct. 4, 2009.
Although this email would normally be sent after the closing of the current Skylight Gallery, time presses as the fine exhibit "Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts" currently hosted in New Haven, CT by the Yale Center for British Art will be ending shortly. This exhibit draws on many visual arts, but surprisingly contains extensive photographic content, including both period evolution-related photography and photographic images from Darwin's own collection.
The show has been drawing a large out-of-town crowd and if some of you have been considering a last-minute visit to New Haven, perhaps an overview of the photography included may help with your decision. (For those of you in the UK, the exhibit will be traveling to Cambridge shortly -- see dates above.) And for those who cannot attend the show, an overview may give some idea of the connections to be found between period photography, especially ethnography, and Darwin's work.
Period photographs are first used in the exhibit to illustrate the widespread influence of Darwin's ideas. Beginning with a Roger Fenton salt print ca. 1858 of juxtaposed human and gorilla skeletons in British Museum, included are also Henry Fox Talbot's "The Geologists" (1843) showing a middle class couple studying rock formations, illustrating the widespread period interest in the new sciences, and a surprising image of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, posed with skeletons of man and ape.
Anthropological photographs from the period demonstrate the extent of period interest in the scientific study of man, ranging from period cartes-de-visite of unusual peoples to larger format anthropological study images of Tasmanian and Australian aborigines.
The gentleman-anthropologist Roland Bonaparte is represented by albumen prints of Australian native peoples. Bonaparte is noted for his mugshot-like paired frontal and profile views which were applied to numerous ethnic groups.
NB: Since the exhibition images are not available, here and below I have illustrated the photographer's work with similar images from the CWFP galleries and other sources.
Roland Bonaparte, views of a Laplander, ca. 1884.
Also shown in the exhibition are photographs from Darwin's own study collection (of which I was previously unaware). Included are four 1860s-era anthropological images by Philippe Jacques Potteau, illustrating an Indian and a North African scientifically, via paired frontal and profile exposures. The Potteau images exhibited are somewhat faded, but obviously their exceptional provenance in coming from Darwin's personal study collection renders them objects of high interest. These images are believed to have played a role in Darwin's thinking as he evolved the theories expressed in The Descent of Man. Those of us who already admire the aesthetics of Potteau's moving images will feel doubly gratified to discover that they have played this role in intellectual history.
Philippe Jacques Potteau, Mohamed ben Miloud (Algeria).
Again tied directly to Darwin's work are three photographs from the famous Electro-Physiologie of Duchenne de Boulogne, used by Darwin in his 1873 "Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals".
From the "Electro-Physiologie..." of Duchenne de Boulogne.
A final theme in the exhibit is the intellectual conflict raised between Darwin's evolutionary "survival of the fittest" and social charity towards the downtrodden, an issue Darwin himself attempted to address. The famous John Thomson image "The Crawlers" from Thomson's study of the working poor, "Street Life in London," is presented as an example of the Victorian interest in these themes.
John Thomson, The Crawlers.
Further information about the exhibit "Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts" can be found online at: http://www.darwinendlessforms.org/home.html