This page was last updated March 28, 2017     

The Press
Publishing your book with SAP
Contact Us
Title/Author Index
Rights & Permissions
Social Media
Paperback on-Demand

Browse Subject

Art History
Cultural & Social Studies
Economics & Management
Geography, Environment & Migration
Jewish Studies
Latin American Studies
Library Studies
Literary Criticism & Linguistics
Middle East Studies
Politics, Media & IR
Psychology & Psychotherapy
Theatre & Drama
Theology & Religion
Women’s Studies
  Alpha Press
Libraries of Study

Asian & Asian American Studies
Contemporary Spanish Studies
Critical Inventions
Critical Voices
Demographic Developments
First Nations & Colonial Encounter
Latin American Library
Peace Politics in the Middle East
Portuguese-Speaking World
Religious Beliefs & Practices
Spanish History
Spirituality in Education

  You are in: Home > Cultural & Social Studies > Picture Imperfect  

Picture Imperfect
Photography and Eugenics, 1879–1940

Anne Maxwell

Anne Maxwell is is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne where she teaches courses on literary criticism and cultural studies. She has published widely in the fields of colonial visual cultures and colonial and postcolonial literature. Her previous book was Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the ‘Native’ and the Making of European Identities.


Picture Imperfect documents and critically analyses the photographs that helped strengthen as well as bring down the Eugenics Movement. Using a large body of racial-type images and a variety of historical and archival sources, and concentrating mainly on developments in Britain, the USA and Nazi Germany, the author argues that photography, as the most powerful visual medium of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was vital to the Eugenics Movement’s success – not only did it allow eugenicists to identify the people with superior and inferior hereditary traits, but it helped publicise and lend scientific authority to eugenicists’ racial theories.

The author further argues for a strong connection between the racial-type photographs that eugenicists created and the photographic images produced by nineteenth-century anthropologists and prison authorities, and that the photographic works of contemporary liberal anthropologists played a significant role in the Eugenics Movement’s downfall. Besides adding to our knowledge of photography's crucial role in helping to authorise and implement some of the most controversial social policies of modern times, this book makes a major contribution to our understanding of the history of racism.

Most accounts of eugenics have been written by history of science scholars, with an emphasis on the history of science and medicine. In contrast, Picture Imperfect looks at eugenics from the standpoint of its most significant cultural data – racial-type photography, investigating the techniques, media forms, and styles of photography used by eugenicists, and relating these to their racial theories and their social policies and goals. Indeed, the visual archive was crucially constitutive of eugenic racial science because it helped make many of its concepts appear both intuitive as well as scientifically legitimate.

Author’s Preface
List of Plates


Part I Historical Context
Racial-type Photographs in the Colonial Period
The Degenerate Face: Nineteenth-Century Prison Photographs

Part II Emergence of Euge
nic Photography
The Eugenics Movement Begins: Galton and the Races of Britain
Building a Healthy Nation: Eugenic Images in the United States, 1890–1935
Creating the Master Race: Photography and Racial Selection in Germany
Sub-Human Versus the Master Race: Racial-type Photographs and Nazi Party Propaganda
Part III Counter Images
Eugenics Under Fire: the Racial-type Imagery of Boas, Du Bois, Huxley and Hadden



“Building on her Colonial Photography and Exhibitions, Maxwell traces the role of photography in the rise and fall of the eugenics movement. Photos helped promote diverse agendas from British scientist Francis Galton’s first use of the medium to depict the new ‘science’ of human breeding to the Nazis’ justification of their master race ideology and infamous policies. Eugenics also gained popularity in the U.S. in an era of socioeconomic upheaval. The author shows how counter-racial purity images by German anthropologist Franz Boas and African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, among others, led to the discrediting of scientific racism.” Reference & Research Book News

“With well over 100 photographs to support the analysis, this examination of the influence of photography on the eugenics movement adds an important chapter to the history of better breeding. Focusing mainly on the UK, US, and Germany, Maxwell divides her book into three sections: a history of the movement; how advocates used photographs to educate the public about the need to sterilize the “unfit”; and how a group composed mostly of anthropologists used photographs to refute the arguments made by eugenicists. She notes that in the early 1900s the photograph was seen as capturing reality and revealing truth. The eugenic mug shot, the favourite type of picture used by proponents, reframed reality for those persons already troubled by the social disruption caused by rapid industrialization, and frightened by the increasing number of immigrants who arrived to work in industrial factories. Eugenicists played to the emotions of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who feared that they were losing control of their world. Thus, by placing structural analysis of the visual archive of the movement demonstrates that, in this case, a picture was worth a thousand words. Recommended.” Choice

“The use of images to convince the public, politicians, and medical and social welfare professionals of the danger of atavistic degenerates and defectives was a critical tool in the early twentieth-century eugenicists’ arsenal. Anne Maxwell’s book Picture Imperfect provides an excellent introduction to the role of photography in the eugenicist’s propaganda. In her study, Maxwell examines the topic of eugenics through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, and the history of scientific racism.

This book is an exceptional examination of the use of photography within the eugenic movement from the end of the nineteenth century up to the start of the Second World War. The numerous photographs selected for inclusion in the text are superb. Their reproduction is very good. For those interested in eugenics and scientific racism this book would be a valuable addition to their library. It is written for the academic and the interested general reader with some knowledge of eugenics.” Canadian Journal of History


Publication Details

Hardcover ISBN:
Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
October 2007; paperback, April 2010
  Illustrated:   with 120 racial-type photographic images
Hardback Price:
£55.00 / $79.50
Paperback Price:
£24.95 / $45

Order book by phone or online

UK, Europe, Asia and Rest of the World:
Gazelle Book Services

tel. 44 (0)1524-528513


United States, Canada:
International Specialized Book Services

tel.  1-800-944-6190




© 2017 Sussex Academic Press   |   Disclaimer