Francis Galton Family Composite

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

Members only article

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

Sorry this is a Photoworks Members only post.

As a Photoworks member you will receive the Photoworks Annual (RRP £20) shipped direct to your door, immediate access to members-only Photoworks web-content and year round 10% Photoworks shop discount and much more...

Member LoginBecome a Photoworks Member

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

Buy Photoworks Issue 20