Photography changes social and cultural hierarchies

Carol Squiers

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Carol Squiers [ BIO ]

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Carol Squiers

Carol Squiers, writer, editor, and curator at the International Center of Photography, has organized exhibitions including Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now (2009) and Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 (2009), both co-curated with Vince Aletti, and the five-part series Imaging the Future: The Intersection of Science, Technology, and Photography (2001-2004). Her writing has been published in numerous exhibition catalogues and periodicals including the New York Times, Artforum, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Aperture. Squiers edited Overexposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography (2000) and The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photograph (1990) and is the author of The Body at Risk: Photography of Disorder, Illness, and Healing (2005).

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Carol Squiers, writer, editor, and curator, explores how a quest for “perfection” reveals some of the ways photography has been used to support and popularize eugenics.

By the time Weegee took this photo in 1941, American infants had been crying and competing in baby contests for more than three decades. Despite the humorous staging of the picture, the competitions were not amusing. Better Babies contests had started in the early 20th century as part of a public health initiative in response to the high rate of infant mortality. But the idea of saving babies by promoting early childhood development soon mutated into a quest to encourage the preservation and reproduction of the “gifted breeds”—breeds of people, that is—that were identified as being primarily white, Anglo-Saxon, and middle class.

The Better Babies contests led to competitions for entire families. At the Fitter Families for Future Firesides contests, which were held at U.S. state fairs in the 1920s and 1930s, people submitted to a range of tests to win trophies and medals that supposedly certified their excellent biological heritage. At the same time, eugenicists also toiled to identify and label the people they considered to be tainting the gene pool of American society. Then they began to conceive programs to restrict those branded as inferior or “unfit” from reproducing while encouraging increased childbearing among the “fit.”

The eugenics movement had substantial influence over public thinking, educational curricula, and Congressional legislation. In 1924, eugenicists were instrumental in passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the number of people from certain countries who could immigrate to the U.S. By the late 1920s they helped push through laws in twenty-four states that mandated sterilization of those who were deemed “unfit” and thus would not produce a “Better Baby.” Many proponents of eugenics were in positions of authority at universities and colleges, professional organizations, museums, and industry, and they gave credibility and clout to the movement, which was popularized and disseminated in newspapers and magazines, lectures, books, and exhibitions.

This picture by Weegee would have offended the sensibilities of the starchy, self-important eugenicists. The winners at eugenic affairs were usually posed by local photographers using the prim conventions of studio portraiture. Frilly white dresses, spotless sailor suits, and fluffy bonnets were the preferred costumes. If naked, the child’s body was depicted as perfectly still and unperturbed. And all the children were well behaved and wore sweet expressions rather than the distorted grimace of infant distress. The point of the eugenic portrait was to convey the calm, elevated character of the “well-born” and to advance the notion that only such superior people should reproduce. Weegee may have been playing off these sober representations of the prize children and their parents when he took his photographs. But he relished the noisy chaos of this scene more than the dubious principles of reproductive excellence it wanted to promote.

When Weegee attended this event he was working for the left-leaning New York newspaper PM, which allowed him the freedom to choose his own subjects from its list of story ideas. A hospital-sponsored baby contest doesn’t seem like a natural fit for him, but he took up the task with his usual smart-aleck enthusiasm. This particular image, however, was not published by PM in its coverage, which was headlined “Meet Methodist Hospital’s Most Perfect Baby” (PM, May 14, 1941, p. 17). Instead, the paper used an image of three nurses with six squalling contestants, along with shots of the two winners. The newspaper’s editors made some gentle jokes about the aspirants in the captions and also made it clear that the hospital’s contest judged health and physical development.

But the editors missed an opportunity to draw a link between the quest to create and judge the “perfect baby” and the growing menace of eugenics both in the U.S. and in Germany. President Herbert Hoover had sponsored a White House Conference on Child Health and Protection in 1930, which went on record in favor of sterilization of people who were declared “feebleminded,” “intellectually subnormal,” or “socially inadequate.” Eventually, over sixty thousand Americans were subjected to involuntary sterilization in the effort to prevent a less-than-perfect baby from being born to less-than-perfect parents. In 1933 the Nazis enacted a sterilization law, based on that of California. More than 350,000 people would be sterilized in Germany. And although the post-World War II revelations of Nazi atrocities of all kinds would discredit eugenics, this pseudo-science of human engineering would never completely disappear.

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Weegee, “Meet Methodist Hospital’s Most Perfect Baby,” May 14, 1941, International Center of Photography
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  • Weegee, “Meet Methodist Hospital’s Most Perfect Baby,” May 14, 1941, International Center of Photography
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PM, "Meet Methodist Hospital's Most Perfect Baby,” May 14, 1941, Photographs by Weegee, International Center of Photography
  • PM, "Meet Methodist Hospital's Most Perfect Baby,” May 14, 1941, Photographs by Weegee, International Center of Photography
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