Science, Photography and the Body

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras the new knowledge of science, such as the science of physical fitness for example, allowed the body to become an object that was subject to technical expertise. Physical fitness was taken up by governments and their armies to enforce standards of fitness for recruits, the medical examination ensuring suitability for service and the fitness regime ensuring that all bodies were interchangeable and replaceable in the event of death on the battlefield. The body became a site of intervention; it became malleable and plastic, subject to the demands of the self and State. This trend continues at an unabated pace today especially within the personal sphere; in the 'miracles' of steroid enhancement, plastic surgery, implants and liposuction all there to help you attain the 'perfect' body. Now all bodies can start to look alike, interchangeable one with another.

Photography, also a relatively new science in that era, confirmed the 'truth' of the power of the muscular body through documentary evidence. The camera acted to legitimise the concerns of men over their body image through relationship of power to the practice of representation. Surveillance of the self became a major factor in the construction of your social identity. Through photographs you could judge for yourself whether you measured up to the 'ideals' put forward as valuable by society. Therefore images of muscular mesomorphs can & do affect the self-esteem of individuals through a powerful semiotic system that is embedded in the idealised body factually re-presented in a photograph. This power is validated because people know the key to interpret the coded 'sign' language through which photographs, and indeed all images, speak. In neglecting to acknowledge alternative significations present within this semiotically coded power structure there is the opportunity for one dominant image to be chosen selectively over other types of less 'valuable' body images, eventually leading to the possible loss of the key to decode the desirability of 'other' body images.

The problem with images that promote the dominancy, power and masculinity of the muscular mesomorphic body is that they portray one supposed objective truth which is impossible, for there can be many changing 'truths' (viewed from many subjective and objective positions).


Anon. "M.J. Poncela" nd

Images can be a fabrication just as easily as they are supposed to speak the language of an objective 'truth'. For example, in the 1870s Dr. Barnardo had photographs taken that showed rough, dirty, and dishevelled children arriving at his homes, and then paired them with photographs of the same children bright as a new pin, happy and working in the homes afterwards. These photographs were used to sell the story of children saved from poverty and oppression and happy in the homes; they appeared on cards which were sold to raise money to support the work of these homes. Dr. Barnardo was taken to court when one such pair of photographs was found to be a fabrication, an 'artistic fiction' (see John Tagg).


Anon. "George Renzi" nd

(Above left) 'Before/after' photographs.

"M. J. Poncela."

(Left) 'Before/after' photographs.

"George Renzi, Jr.,"


Photographs can be used not only as a tool of observation but as a commodity, to advertise, support and sell the existence of a regime of power that controls the body, in this case the body of the child. In this way the body of the child becomes a commodity too.


The same process of commodification of the body can be seen in the 'Before and After' photographs from the 1930s, the 1950s and from the contemporary era, photographs that were used to sell products. The science of physical fitness has always sold product to go with its ideals and the use of before and after photos echoes the practices of Dr. Barnardo. Here I am looking at my own weak and puny body and then looking at these photographs and advertisements that are telling me: 'You can have a bigger, better body in only (substitute x amount of time) days or weeks!' if you buy this product. You can attain the perfect male body. But it will cost you. In time, in money, in sacrifices, perhaps in failure. But you want that body don't you, you want to belong!





35 day Johnson
bodybuilding program

Anon. "Untitled" 1952


The photographs from the 1930s show examples of bodily improvement over a period of one year, a reasonable amount of time given the improvement shown. As the century progressed however, the claims for products became more exaggerated and photography was used to bolster these claims. For example, in the 1952 photographs above photography is used to authenticate the models physical improvement in just 35 days. Note however that in the second photograph the model is standing closer to the camera than in the first one, he has a tan which makes him look healthier, is oiled up, and his hair is bigger to give him more physical presence. He is also engaging the gaze of the viewer, returning his look, which in itself is a more defiant act.

Nothing much has changed in advertising claims from the 1950s until today. In the unretouched sequence of photographs (below) from 1998 (for a leading supplier of sports nutritional supplements), we are asked to believe a new, super-fast "Theory of Evolution" exists, achieved over a period of less than 12 weeks.


Anon. "The New Theory of Evolution" 1998


'Before/after' photographs.

"The New Theory of Evolution
(Unretouched photographs taken over a period of less than 12 weeks)."



I am not suggesting that these photographs lie at all. They are the truth. As with all photographs and their link to indexicality, these photographs are a form of 'truth' that may be 'the truth' as viewed from one perspective. Firstly I suggest that the model does not have an 'ordinary' body to start with. Look at the size of the legs and arms in all four photographs and you start to realise that this man may be a bodybuilder who is out of condition or someone who has done some sort of physical exercise to build up his body at a time before the first photograph was taken. Secondly, as in the photographs from the 1950s, his demeanour changes throughout the sequence. In the first photograph he is stooped, unkempt, unshaven, hairy, flat-footed and slovenly. Much like the photographs of children arriving at the Dr. Barnardos homes in the 1870s. As the sequence progresses he becomes happier, taller, more 'pumped' and 'cut' till he positively shines like burnished steel, his muscles glowing as he strides on the balls of his feet into the future. His fists become clenched to emphasise his bulging muscles and his manliness.

You see, its a 'lifestyle' thing. Muscular men look after their bodies, have no moral disorders and are happier and more successful. Nothing touches these bodies!