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The Body is a thoughtful and inventive collection of images
selected by William Ewing, with high quality reproduction. Ewing
has given a wide range of photographs, from the earliest years
of photography up until the end of the twentieth century, and
they are printed beautifully, retaining the clarity and detail
of the originals.
He divides his book of 432 pages into thirteen chapters, each
with a different thematic focus. Most of the pictures are in black
and white. Each chapter has a few pages of text to introduce and
explain some of the images, written in clear prose, without indulging
in the pseudo-intellectual nonsense that too many photography
books succumb to. A possible weakness of the book is that most
of the people depicted are Caucasian.
The book is at its best in its surveying of the history of photography;
Ewing presents a smattering of modern photographers, but he does
not attempt anything like a complete survey of all the current
approaches to photographing the body. It's hard to imagine a better
selection of photographs for the number of pages here. Of course,
a larger format book would show the photographs in more detail,
but the high definition of these images makes up for the rather
small size of the pages.
It's worth asking what relevance a book of pictures of the human
body has to understanding the human mind and mental illness. Photography
has been very important for medicine and the scientific study
of humans, and Ewing shows some of the attempts to categorize
people through their physical appearances. He includes images
of health, beauty, abnormality, and illness, the body in motion,
the body magnified, and of many bones. But the most relevant function
of these pictures to psychology is to show ways that we relate
emotionally to own bodies, and what role the body has in our culture.
This is especially obvious when it comes to eroticism and beauty,
and Ewing has a chapter on Eros, with a small selection from the
millions of images that have tried to capture something about
human sexuality. (For a larger collection, see Ewing's more recent
book, Love and Desire.)
More interesting is the chapter on Flesh. Included here are John
Coplans, Robert Davis, Raoul Hausmann,
and the stunning work of Yves Trémorin.
Most of the pictures in this chapter are simple and beautiful,
even though they are not all young and smooth-skinned. The chapter
on "Fragments" restricts itself to images of different
parts of the body, all of which are great pictures, while the
chapter on "Figures" has people posed in striking poses.
There's a great deal of overlap between chapters, both in style
and in the photographers included, but that's hardly a criticism.
Some of the photographs in the Estrangement chapter are disturbing
- a woman's corpse after an autopsy, and a massively obese man,
for example - but they are not gratuitous.
In all, this is a terrific book. It's not a textbook, and it does
not provide a comprehensive history of photography, but it can
serve as a great introduction to how photography has portrayed
the human body over the last hundred and fifty years.
© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks
on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.