Amos Morris-Reich. Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876-1980. 320pp., 72 halftones, notes, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. $97.50 (cloth), $32.50 (paper), $10-32.50 (e-book options)
Photography was a major medium in racial science and Amos Morris-Reich, a professor at the University of Haifa, has written Race and Photography to show how racial scientists used photographs as evidence. He presents his subject not as a history of anti-Semitic pseudoscience or propaganda but as a history of science that aims to take seriously the role of photographs in books about race. The starting point is his “practical epistemology” (4): a study of photography that looks at scientific practices rather than at theories for their underlying epistemological assumptions. This means that Morris-Reich’s analysis consists of close readings of photographs and their position in publications, paying attention to things as varied as photographic angles, publication quality, the order of photographs, and the way in which they connect to the written text.
Morris-Reich places his analysis in a larger story about the history of visual perception, which developed from an early modern objective model of vision to a modern subjective model. The latter included what he calls “racial imagination” (21) and the efforts of racial scientists to capture both visible and invisible features of race. This, according to Morris-Reich, did not immediately place racial scientists in the realm of pseudoscience or Nazi mysticism, but reflects a phenomenological tradition of finding the essence of things “in their potential more than in their actuality” (27).
Some of the protagonists in Morris-Reich’s book are well-known users of photography, such as Alphonse Bertillon, Francis Galton, and Eugen Fischer, but it also includes lesser known figures, from Nazi theoretician Hans Günther to German-Jewish Zionist scholars such as Arthur Ruppin and Erich Brauer. Apart from the first chapter (on Bertillon and Galton) the book’s focus is on German (speaking) scholars who published on the Jewish race.
The first chapter traces the development of photography in relation to anthropometry and the statistics of race. Besides Bertillon and Galton, Morris-Reich also pays attention to the Swiss anthropologist Rudolf Martin, whose influence on anthropometric photography was, according to Morris-Reich, greater than that of the other two. For these scientists the camera was a measuring device. Martin in particular tried to establish control over photographs by defining right angles, techniques, distances, backgrounds, etc., and by doing so “was central in securing the scientific status of photography as a scientifically ‘blind,’ neutral instrument” (61). It was exactly this approach, however, that enabled later scholars to use photographs in their work even though their epistemology and ideology was entirely different. Other scholars in the same period for example used what Morris-Reich calls “Mendelian photography” (34): photography not as a measuring tool but as an attempt to see the genotype behind the phenotype—hidden traits behind individual faces.
The second and third chapters are the most interesting for historians of race, science, and anthropology. In these chapters Morris-Reich argues that with the spread of photographic reproduction, individual photographs as illustrations were replaced with series. Though writers did not usually explain how series were supposed to fit within larger arguments, series were more diffuse arguments themselves; Morris-Reich follows Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s notion of “trained judgment” to show how racial scientists made observers aware of features that were not shared by the entire group but were still essential to its ‘race.’ The focus on serialization brings important insights, although I am less convinced by Morris-Reich’s argument, taken from semioticians, that the layout of a page could have unintended outcomes. In particular, he argues that, in languages read from left to right, elements (here: photographs) on the left of a page are seen as ‘given’ while those on the right are seen as ‘new.’
In chapter three Morris-Reich continues with his argument on serialization, looking at the work of Hans Günther. Serialization here does not explain entirely why Günther used such a variety of photographs, including both good-looking individuals and people with cruder facial features. Morris-Reich suggests that these photographs were meant to create a racially conscious reader who rediscovered racial observation, a skill that German racial thinkers considered lost.
In chapter four Morris-Reich uses the work of several other racial scientists to show how photographs came to suggest hidden dimensions. Despite differences and ambivalences in their use of photographs, the imagination of the reader became as important as the features visible in the photograph. Chapter five follows racial photography to Palestine, where new topics such as Yemenite Jews became relevant. Morris-Reich presents several German-Jewish photographers, but this chapter seems more of an afterthought than a continuation of his main argument, as racial scholars Ruppin and Brauer do not present a new stage of racial photography.
The lack of a conclusion is the book’s weakest point. The arguments that Morris-Reich sets out in the introduction are certainly interwoven in the different chapters, but because the book details so many ambivalent and contradictory messages of racial photography, it would have been useful to include a conclusion on key changes and continuities in the emergence of this new paradigm of visual perception. Another minor shortcoming is the historical period in the title: 1876-1980. Morris-Reich notes in the introduction that photography disappeared much faster from biological anthropology after WWII than statistics or anthropometry did, but he does not elaborate on why this was the case. In fact, there is very little to find in the book on the period after 1950. Despite these shortcomings there is much to appreciate in Morris-Reich’s careful examinations of photographs and the book is recommended for historians of visual culture, anthropology, race, photography, and anti-Semitism.
 Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
Fenneke Sysling: contributions / website / firstname.lastname@example.org / Department of History and Art History, Utrecht University
Leave a Comment