Robert G. Edwards and the degrees of image recognition

There are degrees to image recognition.  The meaning of some images is so crystal clear to us that we understand them on first viewing.  An example would be the Madonna and Child.  They appeal instantly to a  collective consciousness, to common mythology, and common  associations.  Arguably, they are culturally read, but as long as you share the cultural context you know what they connote.  I here offer as an example of these some of  of the images of Annie Brigman that we have discussed in previous blogs.  Then there are images that require some level of explanation – footnotes that can be contained within the image so that they become self explanatory.  Consider, for instance, the Barbie Doll image that we spoke about yesterday.  Take an image of an attractive nude woman holding a Barbie Doll and you just about get the point.  Draw lines on her body to show where fantasy ends and reality begins and the whole point comes across.  These lines are your footnotes.  Finally, there are some images that require a historical or otherwise elaborate explanation.  Show me a daguerreotype of a man in a stove pipe hat, and I start to get interested.  Convince me, through facial feature, that it is indeed Abraham Lincoln, and the picture suddenly takes on a greater meaning picture.

A few months ago I discussed an image of Lesley and Louise Brown, a Madonna and Child.  Louise Brown was the world’s first test tube baby and Lesley Brown her mother.  Sadly, the recent publication of the image was to mark the early death of Lesley Brown.  The image appeals to us in the sense of instant recognition, as mother and child.  But, put in its historic context, it takes on a renewed and invigorated meaning.  There is a whole generation of mothers, who could never have been mothers, and children, who could never have been born, without the development by Robert G. Edwards and Patrick Steptoe of in vitro fertilization.

This week there was another image.  It seems to be a family portrait, like a million other family snapshots.  Perhaps, one thinks, it shows a grandfather and grandmother with their daughter and infant granddaughter.  We need the historic context to understand this image fully.  It shows Robert G. Edwards, Lesley Brown, test-tube baby Louise Brown, and  Louise’s own child.  The image was taken to mark the occasion of Edwards being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2010.  Sir Robert Geoffrey Edwards, CBE, FRS (1925-2013) died this past Wednesday.

This entry was posted in History of Photography, Reviews and Critiques.

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