Darwin’s Portraits and the Creation of a Myth

Here are two portraits of Charles Darwin. The one on the left is a painting by John Collier made in 1883 as a copy of an original 1881 portrait. Collier is reported to have said of the copy that “as a likeness it is an improvement on the original”[*]. The image on the right is a photographic portrait also made around 1881 by the studio of Elliott and Fry, London, and signed by Darwin himself.

My attention was drawn to these portraits as they were displayed in Ann Finkbeiner’s blog post Beauty & Truth in Writing about Science that I previously discussed here. Although she displayed the images prominently, Finkbeiner mentioned them only in a postscript, saying “Which one do I like better, beauty or truth? Yes.”

I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but, for the purposes of this post, I’ll presume she meant that as a work of art, the painting represents beauty and that the photograph, as an image created through application of science represents truth. Perhaps even as I say that, you get the idea that the distinction is somewhat forced, but I think it is nevertheless a useful starting point for a discussion of why, wonderful as it is, I think science is best thought of as a human cultural activity just like any other.

Now, I wouldn’t know artistic beauty if it bit me in the ass, but I can look at pictures. The main thing that strikes me about the two portraits above is how similar they are. Made about the same time, they both show Darwin head-on, same impassive expression, similarly dressed, at three quarter length. Why three quarters? Why not show his feet and the ground he’s standing on? Why not a profile? Why not show his back? In choosing how much of the subject to include and from what angle, the photographer ‘simply’ followed existing conventions of painted portraiture. These conventions embodied passing fashions and served to bolster the market for painted portraits by providing buyers with prefabricated standards of taste that they could exercise without fear of ridicule. Buyers’ anxieties having been assuaged, more, bigger sales could ensue. Conventions and taste in painting are good for business!

Early photographers who laid claim to being artists naturally adopted the same conventions, and for the same reasons. They wanted their images to be marketable and market demand was no more limited to objective truth then than it is now. Any contention that the photograph represents objective truth is misplaced, not to say pernicious, for choices made in its production very largely reflect the preoccupations, preferences and priorities of a particular human culture at a particular time.

The scientific principles of optics and photochemistry through which photographic images are made and captured no more make them representative of objective truth than the objective logical principles of perspectival drawing or of quantum transitions by electronic orbitals in pigments make paintings representative of objective truth. In either case, the images produced are human artefacts and reflect culturally-determined choices by human beings. The value of the images lies in the sincerity with which those choices were made.

That there is no simple correspondence between painting (or drawing) and depiction of beauty or photography and depiction of truth becomes clear when we consider the importance of photography in advertising or, conversely, the importance of drawing and painting in developing the scientific truths of anatomy and natural history. That’s not to say they’re the same, though. A photograph may (assuming we can filter out photomontages and so on) be taken as some kind of testimony that the particular scene depicted did actually exist at some time in some place. Its truth is one of contingency. What photography struggles to depict is the ideal of something. Artists, on the other had will naturally tend to depict their own ideals. A special kind of tenacity is required to overcome this tendency and depict a subject “as it really is”. Collier’s comment on his painting above, apparently made from an earlier painting rather than from life – “as a likeness it is an improvement on the original” – might seem bizarre unless we consider that his aim was to create an ideal – a myth, if you will – of how we think of Darwin. In that context, Elliot and Fry’s photo portrait is not so much an attempt to tell the truth about Darwin, but to perpetuate a myth, to channel public perceptions of him along a certain path

What does any of this have to do with writing about science? I would say that “beauty or truth” is a false dichotomy. Beauty in writing is a way of being persuasive. Truth is a matter of accuracy. Beyond beauty and truth lies sincerity which, among other things, is a matter of being clear with oneself, as much as with the reader, on the extent to which the writer relates their own experience or someone else’s opinion. One can be truthful in relating the statements of a particular scientist, but one is only sincere if they are presented as personal opinion. The writer who relies on those statements becomes a mouthpiece for the views of another – the perpetuator of another’s myth – rather than one who relates their own experience.

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