Francis Galton Family Composite

Ideas Series: Agency and Objectification in Francis Galton’s Family Composites

Francis Galton's composite photographs combined portraits of individuals drawn from particular groups in an effort to reveal physical similarities they shared. The project was premised on the belief that 'moral and intellectual faculties' could be read from a close study of facial features. Ben Burbridge returns to Galton’s composite photographs of families, to consider how the social relations involved in their production and distribution provide a window onto issues around class and identity in Victorian culture.

Francis Galton’s composite portraits occupy the dark underbelly of official photo history. Galton started working on the composites in 1877, exposing a number of mug-shots onto a single photographic plate. Physical similarities repeated through the group emerged as particularly defined; differences grew indistinct.1 The composite system drew on earlier physiognomic thinking, proposing the face as a sign to be read for the ‘moral and intellectual faculties’ of the sitter. It divided society into series of distinct groupings, including criminals, Jewish schoolboys and members of the Royal Engineers, suggesting that physical characteristics typical to each group were revealed in the generic images produced by combining portraits of its members. In the process, social categories were reshaped as both biologically determined and ‘readily available in the evidence of the human body’.2 By the 1880s, the composites had been folded into Galton’s wider eugenics project, which offered the means through which he hoped selective breeding could further ‘the ends of evolution more rapidly and with less distress than if events were left to their own course’.3

In 1882, Galton started working on a series of composites showing members of a single family. The potential applications of the studies were said to be multiple, including the creation of an ‘ideal family likeness’ and to forecast the likely appearance of children produced by married couples. The family images were distinct from the other composite studies. While the majority focused on socio-cultural groups for which Galton aimed to provide a biological grounding, the family pictures focus on biologically determined groupings without direct reference to the socio-cultural identity of those represented. In consequence, the family composites served a useful rhetorical function within a wider thesis centred on the hereditary transmission of moral and intellectual faculties: establishing a relationship through which criminality and insanity were suggested to result in distinct physiognomic templates passed down through generations, much like a daughter inherits her father’s nose. (A similar principle was clear when Galton first presented his criminal composites, moving from a discussion of criminal physiognomy to the observation that there were 576 convicted criminals within the infamous Jukes family in New York.4) The family composites sit outside the other studies, at the same time serving as an index of the governing concerns at the core of the project.

In this short essay, I hope to cast new light on the family composites: re-inscribing Galton’s non-descript family with socio-cultural specificity, in a manner capable of inverting the logic of a project that aimed to provide a biological footing to cultural definitions. To do so, I shift my attention away from an exclusive concern with issues of representation and onto what might be described as photography’s social relations. This approach considers the individual photographs used to produce the composites as the products of dialogues between the parties involved in their production and dissemination. These are sometimes tacit agreements, obscured behind the image, but their excavation is crucial in fully comprehending the social dynamic the photographs embody. While the approach owes something to the work of Ariella Azoulay,5 my concern with specific—as opposed to hypothetical and idealised—sets of social relations makes it closer to an appeal made by Mark Durden and Craig Richardson in their 2000 book Face On: Photography as Social Exchange to ‘think about the context for the meeting between subject and artist’ in an attempt to infer ‘motivations and desires which are never easily pinned down’.6

In a well-known essay, Allan Sekula described the development of portrait photography as following a binary logic: the objectifying agenda of an ‘instrumental realist’ mode defined against celebratory exercises in bourgeois self-imaging. In the first instance, photography was harnessed as the handmaiden of science: the strict consistency of a clinical gaze transforming human subjects into objects, reducing faces to comparable data. Alternatively, commercial photographic studios became the site for elaborate performances aimed at confirming the character and status of the individuals portrayed. Where the former deployed a standard template to record the brute facts of the sitter’s physical make up, the latter combined costumes, expression, lighting, pose and props. For the most part, the subjects of the respective portrait practices remained distinct. An emerging middle class provided a marketplace for commercial studio portraiture, whereas mug-shots usually involved a rogues gallery of criminals, the poverty stricken and the insane. For Sekula, ‘every work of photographic art has its lurking, objectifying inverse in the archives of the police’. The parallel practices contributed to ‘a bourgeois conception of the self’ and helped to map ‘the terrain of the other’.7
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Galton’s studies of a social other drew on, and contributed to, an existing archive of objectifying likenesses. For his studies of criminals, he used a series of photographs depicting inmates at Pentonville and Millbank Prisons, provided by the Home Office in 1877; their consistent visual format lent itself naturally to Galton’s composite methodology.8 In a 1990 essay, Steve Edwards drew on a series of articles published in The Photographic News to consider how such images were produced. Methods ranged from the institutionalisation of a ‘docile body of sitters’, resigned to their personal powerlessness within the prison walls, to the use of force during ‘one instance in which it took four stalwart officers to hold down one prisoner while the “artist” got his picture’.9 Galton’s composites should be seen as an additional link in the chain of photographic disenfranchisement. The sitters first gave up control over whether they were photographed and the manner in which they were represented, before the images were appropriated by Galton to explore what was presented as the physiognomy of distinct types of criminality: from those jailed for violent crime to those found guilty of sexual offences. The point gains weight if we consider the typical circulation of the pictures among Britain’s learned societies, including the Royal Anthropological Institute, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institute and the Royal Photographic Society. When the photographs were viewed in this context, sitters became subject to forms of analysis of which they themselves were unaware, placing them at a further remove from the Victorian elite who pondered the scientific significance of their appearance.

Galton followed the production of his criminal composites with his plans for the studies of families. This shift in subject forced him to change the strategies used to obtain his source material. He delivered a paper to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain in 1878, later published in the organisation’s journal, and in an issue of the journal Nature. This began by offering a detailed explanation of the composite methodology and its potential applications. It went on to explain the difficulties experienced in obtaining ‘the requisite components… without much explanation’ and that his main motive for presenting his work was ‘to afford that explanation and enable me to procure a considerable variety of material to work upon’. This was followed by a direct appeal for contributions—‘I especially want family photographs. I trust that not a few amateur photographers may be inclined to make sets of all members of their family’—and instructions detailing the objective visual depictions he required.10

The same appeal was made in a circular letter in March 1882: ‘written in the hope of persuading Amateur Photographers to make portraits of as many members of their family as accessible, and in a particular way… for the purposes of an experiment’. This referred readers back to the earlier paper on ‘composite portraits’ for a fuller discussion of the project. The letter is clear and contractual, stating that its author ‘should feel at liberty to exhibit or publish any of the composites, but not the portraits, and still less the names, without prior permission specifically asked for and granted’. It went on to suggest that the ‘plain photographic studies… would be in addition to, and not a substitution of more artistically posed photographs’.11 The objective images requested are positioned as a brief foray outside the celebratory photo portrait and into an altogether more unfamiliar space.

In visual terms, there is little, if anything, to distinguish the images from Galton’s earlier studies of criminals. The frontal, objectifying likenesses are arranged with the same spatial logic around their composite to suggest one as the quantified and generic combination of the other. Considered in terms of their procurement, however, it becomes evident that a willing and collaborative aspect has displaced the institutionally imposed objectivity characteristic of the images depicting a social other. The pictures used in the manufacture of the family composites suggest a knowing and consensual performance: a degree of subjective agency manifest in the willing and informed adoption of its objectified inverse. The point gathers force when we consider the contexts in which Galton made his appeals. The photographs were sought out from among the ranks of the same groups for whom the composites were produced. Addressing his request to members of the Royal Anthropological Institute, the readers of its journal, and a group of amateur photographers, Galton looked to both actual and imagined communities of his peers for assistance with his experiment. The family composites represent the families of Britain’s learned societies—the type of intelligentsia that Galton had, elsewhere, positioned at the apex of his hierarchical vision of Victorian society.12 The explanation with which he provided his contributors initiated them into a further, exclusive circle structured around his visual system. The family composites drew on, and visually serviced, a collective identification among the educated bourgeoisie, serving a constitutive and reflective role.

The dialogue between agency and objectification took a final turn when the tactics used to obtain source material changed again. It seems that Galton became frustrated with the small numbers of family photographs he received in response to his appeals, so eventually took to buying up family portraits from commercial studios. A folder in the Galton archives contains a number of such photographs, with families arranged against painted backdrops, each turned out in their Sunday best. As photographs, they would be wholly unremarkable were it not for the fact that the faces have been cut out and removed, seen only now as empty spaces. Through this act of appropriation, sitters make a more literal and altogether less collaborative transition from the bourgeois terrain of the studio to the clinical realm of the mug-shot. Assuming the sitters remained unaware of the eventual fate of their images, the social and economic contract implied by the commissioned studio portraits is undone with likenesses treated in much the same way as the criminal mug-shots passed onto Galton by the Home Office.

The vandalised studio portraits inadvertently distil two related sets of forces that continue to mould understandings of the family and photography. These can be loosely defined as culture and nature, and their parallel articulations as science and art. The original studio portraits suggest a unit defined by nature, when viewed through the lens of culture. In the poses, arrangement and props, the pictures draw directly on a long history of painted portraits that appealed to, and reinforced the self-image of the aristocratic family. In some photographs, mother and father sit centre stage, positioned as the hub of the family that surrounds them. In others, father stands at the back, playing the role of benevolent patriarch, hands on the shoulders of his wife, flanked by his sons, with daughters next to mother. The absent faces in Galton’s pictures talk of an altogether different system, which takes biology as unforgiving absolute. The absent composite photographs the spaces imply were part of a project that defined family solely in terms of heredity: ‘moral and intellectual faculties’ passed down through the generations and inscribed in the faces of those shown. In these haunting headless figures, the ‘chattering ghosts of bourgeois art and bourgeois science’ that Sekula sensed lingering behind every photograph, speak to, and through each other with particular clarity.13
1. Francis Galton, ‘Composite portraits made by combining those of many different persons into a single figure’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1879), vol. 8, pp. 132–148; Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (Macmillan, London, 1883). For a critical account of Galton’s photographic work, see: David Green, ‘Veins of resemblance: photography and eugenics’, Oxford Art Journal (1984) vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 3-16; Allan Sekula, ‘The body and the archive’, in Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1989), pp. 343–389.
2. Green, ibid., p. 6.
3. Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, ibid., p. 20.
4. Francis Galton, ‘Address to the Department of Anthropology’, Nature (1877), 23 August, pp. 344–347.
5. Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contact of Photography (Zone Books, New York, 2008).
6. Mark Durden and Craig Richardson (eds), Face On: Photography as Social Exchange (Black Dog, London, 2000), p. 9.
7. Allan Sekula, ‘The traffic of photographs’, Art Journal (1981), vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 15–21.
8. Galton offers a detailed interpretation of these criminal composites in his article ‘Composite portraits…’, ibid., pp. 135–136.
9. Steve Edwards, ‘The machine’s dialogue’, Oxford Art Journal (1990), vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 63–76.
10. Galton, ‘Composite portraits…’, ibid., p. 142.
11. Francis Galton, ‘The application of composite photographic portraiture to the production of ideal family likenesses’, circular letter dated March 1882, p. 2.
12. Galton described the judges, commanders, literary figures and men of science on whom he focused in an earlier study on ‘hereditary genius’ as ‘the glory of mankind’. See: Galton, ‘Address to the Department of Anthropology’, ibid., p. 341; Francis Galton, Heriditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences (MacMillian, London, 1869).
13. Sekula, ‘The traffic of photographs’, ibid., p. 16.

Published in Photoworks Annual, Issue 20, 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks

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