Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution
By Phillip Prodger
($39.95, Oxford University Press)

“The vestigial result of something useful in earlier times”—this phrase can describe a number of things (naked pictures of your ex; the Zagat guide; newspapers; &c.). Phillip Prodger uses it to describe Charles Darwin‘s theory of the human countenance. If emotions evolved biologically, Darwin reasoned, so did facial expressions. It’s an idea he put forth in 1872—a year after his Descent of Man—in a treatise titled Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Darwin’s Camera is an engagingly literate survey of the intersection between evolutionary theory and photographic technology at a time of accelerated development for both. Darwin came to depend on photography to bolster his speculative argument because, as Prodger notes:

[M]anually produced pictures were prone to all sorts of error…. Besides, works of art are made to communicate ideas, not facts. Artists trade in viewers’ perceptions, not accuracy for its own sake…. The comparatively new medium of photography offered a possible answer to these problems, so Darwin began to collect photographs….. Expression extended Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection to the realm of the mind; it was arguably his boldest extension of evolutionary theory.

But there’s one thing sexier than Victorian evolutionary theory. And that’s a photographic taxonomy of expressions published to bolster Victorian evolutionary theory! After the jump, witness the five most striking photo juxtapositions to be found in Prodger’s volume.

1. ‘Disdain, Contempt, and Disgust.’ Or as I like to call it, ‘A Visual Refutation of the Idea that Muttonchops Were Ever Advisable’:

2. ‘Horror and Agony‘ by Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne. For this shot, Darwin used electro-shock prods to induce the desired expression. And it worked!

3. ‘Insane Woman—from Bethlem Hospital‘ by Henry Hering. In which the subject looks far less insane than any of Darwin’s other subjects.

4. ”Oscar Rejlander, Introducing…Mr. Rejlander.’ Darwin’s chief photog having fun by combining two negatives.

5. ‘Astonished Baby‘; or, as I like to call it, ‘Baby confused as to why [it] appears to be blogging.’