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IN HIS REVIEW OF “TRACE” at the Washington Center for Photography (“Pick up the Pieces,” 2/23), George Kimmerling discussed an essay I wrote for Grain, the WCP quarterly magazine. Kimmerling commented that my essay “includes a gratuitous anti-Semitic remark that equates Jews with murderers.” This statement reflects a serious misreading of my essay, which I would like to correct.
As Kimmerling noted, “Laboratory Notes on Future Technologies and the Construction of Humans (Or, the Modern Prometheus)” is a fictional essay in which the character of Victor Frankenstein ruminates on technological advances that might be used to artificially create humans. As he imagines a device like a camera, Frankenstein describes the process of creating composite portraits, in which a single subject is produced from several subjects. Composite portraiture has an understandable appeal to Frankenstein, who created a single human from the parts of several humans. It also happens to be a precedent of the photographic processes favored by the artists featured in “Trace.”
Readers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will recall that the doctor was an unstable young man, and would not be surprised to read that his plans for using photography seem mad. In fact, Frankenstein’s ideas are borrowed from the actual 19th-century practice of using composite photography as a pseudoscientific tool for constructing a characteristic “type” of members of various groups, such as criminals, scientists, college graduates, and racial and ethnic groups. In my essay, a list of the subjects of composite photographers includes murderers as well as Jews; there is clearly no “equation” suggested between these distinct groups.
The construction of racial and ethnic types by 19th-century photographers was certainly racist by modern standards; Kimmerling seems to have confused their projects with my own in his reading of my essay. Fortunately, more careful readers understand the essay within its context, and see that it condemns the practices Frankenstein imagines. Anyone interested in reading the essay should pick up a copy of on their next visit to the WCP.
New York, N.Y