‘Perfecting Mankind’ Exhibition: It’s Not a Pretty Ideological Picture


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.

“Perfecting Mankind” closes with perhaps the most famous of Nazi image-makers, Leni Riefenstahl, whose book, “Beauty in the Olympic Struggle,” is displayed alongside Russian-Jewish refugee Roman Vishniac’s 1933 photograph, “Mara Poses in Front of a Device for Measuring the Difference in Size Between Aryan and Non-Aryan Skulls, Berlin.” The photograph shows Vishniac’s daughter outside a shop that had been taken over from its Jewish owner by a German “race researcher” named R. Burger-Villingen who used the “Plastometer” displayed in the window to authenticate Aryan heredity.

By focusing on the history of ideas and images behind the mass psychology that the Nazis exploited, Squiers leaves us to imagine the horrors that would fill the next gallery were the exhibition to continue.

“When you get into Nazi eugenics and the Holocaust, you get into a whole other thing,” she says. “Social control expressed in laws turned into mass murder and insanity. We wanted to show how Weimar eugenics translated into Nazi eugenics.”

Although time has varnished eugenics in a patina of irony, Squiers notes that “this was accepted science at the time. Eugenicists tapped into popular fears and prejudices. [But] once it emerges what the Nazis had been up to, the connection with eugenical ideas [is] clear and it discredits eugenics.”

Dividing the German and American sections of the exhibition is a circa 1939 photograph by Weegee (Arthur Fellig) that can be seen as bridging the gap between true believers and nonbelievers: A cat-eyed chorus girl reads a Harvard professor’s book on eugenics and anthropology, “Apes, Men and Morons.” With the wink of an eye, Weegee teaches us a thing or two about desirability and the mating call that have nothing to do with fitter families and better babies.


“Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography,” International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, (212) 860-1777. Through Sunday.