Author Spotlight: Robert Bogdan

Book: Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen and Other Photographic Rhetoric

Currently a Distinguished Professor of Emeritus of Social Science and Education at Syracuse University, Robert Bogdan is back with a new book revisiting his work on historical disability photographs. Well-known for his work in disability studies, he has won numerous awards for his writing, and received an honorary doctorate degree from Stockholm University. Bogdan is the author of Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905–1935, Adirondack Vernacular: The Photography of Henry M. Beach, and Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People’s Photography. His latest book will be out this October.

Tell us about your upcoming book, Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen and Other Photographic Rhetoric?

“Picturing Disability looks at the various ways people with disabilities have been depicted in photographs. Each chapter looks at a different set of depictions produced for different reasons by different people. There are chapters on “freak show” souvenirs, begging solicitations, charity drives, art photography, clinical renderings, product advertising, institutional propaganda and muckraking, and photos found in family albums. There are over 250 illustrations that are integrated into the text.”

What made you want to revisit the topic of disability again, after having written about it in your book Freak Show?

“Since writing Freak Show I have pursed an interest in the history of photography and have collected historical images of people with disabilities. I have also visited many collections of antique photographs. In the back of my mind I was working on Picturing Disability for a long time. Disability Studies has always been an interest and I thought that Freak Show was only a start in looking at depictions of disability.”

Was the research involved in compiling this book similar or different to your previous research for your other books?

“It was similar in the sense that I hunted down multiple sources of old photographs and reviewed thousands of them in my research. Since I had been collecting images of people with disabilities for over twenty-five years and there were not many archives that had such images I relied more on my own collection than in previous work.”

What aspect of working on a book project do you enjoy the most? Do you follow the same process with every book or does each book project unfold in a different way?

“I love finding and examining images that open up new insights into what I am researching. In my last two books I follow more of less the same process. I study thousands of images and start sorting them according to categories that emerge by looking at how the images are the same and different. Then I begin refining the categories and writing about them. The categories get modified, merged, refined and elaborated upon.”

Why did you choose to put more of an emphasis and focus on who was behind the camera than the specific individuals in the photos?

“All photographs are taken under different circumstances and for different purposes by people with a variety of points of view. People interested depictions of people with disability seldom take that into account the picture takers. Most are interested in making judgments about whether the pictures are complimentary or slanderous, or are concerned with how the depictions fit into contemporary theory. I chose my approach because I thought it was missing and made sense to me.”

What do you enjoy most about studying photography and its impacts on culture?

“Thinking through the connection between the different ways photographers operated and how the pictures they took are related.”

What do you hope this book will accomplish or help with in current and future disability studies?

“I hope it will generate interest in disability studies and expand how people in this field approach the study of disability representation.”

The fall 2012 title, Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen and Other Photographic Rhetoric, by Robert Bogdan with Martin Elks and James Knoll is available for pre-sale now.  Visit the Syracuse University Press website for more information.

“The stunning archive of images that Bogdan and his co-authors have amassed is a major contribution to the growing body of analysis of disability representation in photography. This book brings incisive, expert historical perspective to more familiar terrain and at the same time opens up important new avenues of exploration.”—Susan Schweik, University of California at Berkeley

Photo: Charles Tripp, ” The Armless Wonder,” 1885. Photograph by Eisenmann. Cabinet card, Bogdan Collection.

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