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by Robert Bogdan with Matthew Elks and James Knoll
Syracuse University Press, 2012
Review by Ron Amundson, Ph.D. on Jan 21st 2014

Picturing Disability

Robert Bogdan is currently Emeritus Professor of History at Syracuse University. He has many publications in the history of photography. The publication best known in the Disability Studies (DS) community is Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Bogdan 1988). This is not the only study of freak shows by DS scholars, but it is very well known and well respected due to Bogdan's rich background and the extensive collections of photographs that he has worked with. Some of these he has arranged to have contributed to the Syracuse University Library. Freak Show is still in print, and probably used in many college courses.

The current book is broader in scope and it is less directly oriented towards DS, but it contains a great deal of value to scholars of DS and other critical approaches. "Each chapter is a photo essay" concerning a genre of disability image according to Bogdan (p. 6). He is aware that the division of disability images into genres is problematic, and he devotes the final chapter to its problems. The genres include sideshow souvenir photos (of "freaks," professionally so described), begging cards (photos used as exchange items by beggars), images used by established charities, photos of asylums, movie stills, clinical photos, art photography ("art for art's sake"), 'citizen portraits' (meaning personal photos with no ideological function), and advertising photos that don't fit the categories previously mentioned. Several of the genres have received attention from DS scholars, but the combination of these genres together with the lesser-known has its own value.

The first genre is sideshow photos. An issue raised both here and in the 1988 book is the conflict between the interests of the professional freaks themselves and the social critics who, beginning in the 1960s, drove the freak shows out of business. Given the wretched state of employment for disabled people even today, this was a serious problem for a large number of people. The actual photos in this chapter have a voyeuristic and historical attraction, but they have less objective interest to the DS community than their social context (thanks in part to the 1988 book). Still, the area is a rich one.

The begging card photos are more novel in their interest. The popularity of these cards resulted largely from the fact that U.S. culture has a special abhorrence for the practice of begging, especially when you compare it with the attitudes towards begging in many Islamic and Asian cultures. Americans do not simply pity beggars, they detest them (or as close to it as cultural generalizations would allow). Still, the poor are with us. From the time of the popularization of photography until certain 20th century innovations (mentioned below), photographic begging cards served a special function for people who were in poverty because of their impairments. People who would otherwise qualify as 'beggars' could offer an ostensible exchange; a card for a donation. Cards described medical conditions, explained how the card peddlers were not responsible their predicament, and reported how many blameless children were dependent on the peddlers, thus avoiding the beggar label. This was a strict legal issue in some localities, where begging was illegal but peddling was not. Moreover, in some places "ugly laws" specifically prohibited begging by people with visible impairments (Schweik 2009). One's own impairments and the pitifulness of one's children were displayed on these cards, but the money received could be seen as an exchange. This almost-literal value may be why so many cards are still available for sale in antique shops.

A large number of mobility-impaired men during this period showed their strength of character (or whatever it was that they showed) by traveling great distances in goat- or dog-powered wagons or other unusual devices (e.g. crank-driven wheelchairs or specially designed motorcycles). Most of our knowledge of this class of entrepreneur comes from their begging cards. Just as begging is intrinsically bad to Americans, mobility is intrinsically good. Americans seemed willing to contribute (i.e. purchase cards) from people who solved their mobility problems in creative ways.

Begging cards dropped off in the 1920s and 30s. This was because individual begging dropped off. And this, in turn, was because of the growth of organized charities and of various sorts of asylums. Eventually, of course, the "social safety net" of FDR's social programs contributed, but this is out of the range of the book. (It is an intriguing question whether any disabled people were pictured in the photography collections collected by the WPA.) Charities and asylums gave rise to separate genres of disability photography. The charity genre has already been a topic of DS criticism. Bogdan's chapter contributes to this literature. Charities took away the legitimacy of a street beggar's excuse that begging was his or her only source of support. The "deserving poor" could go to established charities, and the charities would decide who was deserving. So begging cards lost their value. However, charities often misstated their goals to be "cures" for the children (usually children) in their advertisements. Many of the actual goals of medical charities, such as the March of Dimes charity, made much less difference for the poster children depicted as 'victims' of the disease than they did for the general public who would be protected by a new vaccine. Meanwhile the demeaning depictions of people who had the diseases genuinely harmed the life prospects of those people (depicted in the advertisements) who would continue to live with the effects of the disease, vaccine or no vaccine. They would do so in a society made up of people whose image of physical impairment was biased by the pathetic images created by Jerry Lewis and other pity-mongers. No wonder so many poster-children of the 1950s felt ripped off as adults, and reported this anger in disability rights literature.

The relation Bogdan reveals between asylums and photography is especially intriguing. Like charities (but much more directly) the asylums took many people with impairments off the streets and out of the begging profession. Institutions were the subjects of a large photographic tradition, unknown and probably surprising to much of today's public. Like other instances of Bogdan's collections, this took place in the form of postcards sold in local five-and-dime stores. Picture postcards were wildly popular in the early years of the 20th century, and many people collected them. Large public asylums for people with diagnoses of insanity, tuberculosis, and a few other diseases had exploded in popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century. But why would these two fads (excuse the flippancy) interact? Well, they did. Bogdan reports that there were about 350 asylums in the 48 states during the first half of the 20th century, ranging from hundreds to thousands of residents each. Many of the largest were located in rural areas. In poor rural areas these institutions must have been economic engines. They served as landmarks and points of pride. Today's postcard collectors have no trouble finding images of them in antique shops. Bogdan offers a dozen or so examples, all quite beautiful in composition, pleasant in landscape and furnishings, and almost entirely devoid of clients (inmates). What does this tell us about the relation between the American public and their asylums? Bogdan discusses some intriguing possibilities, but much work remains to be done on the topic. He ends the chapter dramatically, by introducing the 'muckraking' photography that burst into the public consciousness in the 1960s. These studies revealed the inhumane conditions under which most residents were held. The picturesque exteriors contained dungeons and horrific mistreatment of inmates. Muckraking led to their demise, but it also led to one of today's most shameful demographic facts: The large numbers of people with psychiatric disabilities among the homeless and within American prisons. 

Two nice chapters are contributed by Bogdan's former graduate students Martin Elks and James A. Knoll. Elks's chapter discusses how clinical photos were used to lend objectivity to eugenic ideological practices. The ideology of eugenics is nothing new, but Elks nicely shows how naïve assumptions about the objectivity of photography aided in its acceptance. Knoll discusses some interesting dilemmas in the aesthetics of disability photography. The first is that many of the art photos he discusses could not be reprinted because of copyright protection. He sidesteps this problem in many cases by providing URLs that bring up the photos from their museum or gallery locations. A more internally aesthetic problem is that aesthetic purists would insist that social problems of the impaired subject within a photograph are no part of the photo's value; aesthetic value arises solely from visual facts like composition. It does not arise (for example) from the fact that the photo depicts the difficulty of people with impairments trying to get into a welfare office to get their support checks. This problem persists in aesthetics, and is especially apparent with subjects that have impairments. I don't believe anyone can read Diane Arbus's discussions of her well-known 'freak' photographic subjects (even the brief quotations in Knoll's chapter) and remain confident that Arbus's interests are either purely aesthetic or purely social. She was thrilled by freaks, and that was why she photographed them. This is ok with me, but such thrills should be acknowledged and critiqued. (In my opinion, some of Arbus's thrills were good and some were bad. I could only hope that someone was as thrilled by me as Arbus was by her 'Mexican dwarf' subject, lolling about in his bedclothes, a person Arbus knew well.)

Bogdan's next-to-last chapter was on 'citizen portraits', meaning personal photos of individuals with impairments that apparently had no ideological function. This chapter was my favorite, and I think it held Bogdan's most insightful commentary. It showed that powerful pictures could be taken without powerful purposes behind them. Or at least without obvious powerful purposes behind them. Bogdan admits that he struggles to understand some of them, as would any viewer. This is only because we think that some reason is needed for taking a picture of a disabled person, and the reason must involve his/her disability. The fact that this is my uncle (or sister, or cousin, or mother) simply isn't enough.

In his final chapter, Bogdan brings back the topic of genres of disability photography, the problems in defining them, and suggesting some new ones (such as the 'town character' genre and the 'disabled veterans' genre). I find in myself little interest in genrefication of disability photography. However, even if we abandon hopes for a genre-based analysis of the topic, the book has a great deal of important information, and much of that information is within the photographs themselves. The book is of great interest to anyone with a broad interest in DS, and in the social history of photography, and it is a required source for any academic program that touches on these topics.


Bogdan, R. (1988). Freak Show. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Schweik, S., Ed. (2009). The ugly laws: disability in public. New York, New York University Press.



© 2014 Ron Amundson



Ron Amundson, Emeritus, Philosophy Department, University of Hawaii at Hilo.