From fact to fantasy. Scientific illustrations and visual representations in the early work of Gaston Backman

Date08 July 2019
Publication Date08 July 2019
AuthorUlrika Kjellman
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
From fact to fantasy
Scientific illustrations and visual
representations in the early work of
Gaston Backman
Ulrika Kjellman
Department of ALM, Uppsala, Sweden
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the characteristics and functions of images in scientific
practices and how scientific images differ to other types of representation (e.g. textual, numerical or artistic
images). To address these questions, the study looks into the illustration practice of the Swedish researcher
Gaston Backman, who wrote several books on the origin of the human species, human anatomy, physical
anthropology and race biology in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Design/methodology/approach A comparative and functio nal analytical method is applied to
show how the images act in his wr itings and how rhetorical and techn ical circumstances affect the way t he
images communicate and document scientific facts and ideas. Theoretically, the study relates to ideas
suggesting: images t o be serious partakers a nd vehicles of represe ntation in the practic e of science;
and the need for images to b e schematic and more abst ract in comparison to an iconic image in order to
work in this practice.
Findings The findings of this study show that Backman used both schematic and iconic images in his
research writings, and that these different image expressions had different functions: where the former was
based on facts and had an informative and scientific function, the latter was based on fantasy/myth and used
to promote ideological values and ideas.
Originality/value This study stresses the importance of images in the practice of science, i.e. how
images alongside verbal or numerical expressions act as important information and knowledge carriers in
the work of science. Even thou gh images intermingle with verbal and num erical expression, they also have
a unique and specific, a r ole that needs to be taken se riously and investig ated further in the real m of
information studies a nd document studies. T he authors also need to be aware that images can ha ve
different functions i n the scientific practice, and are not always there to carry scientific facts or ideas, but
ideologies and fantasies.
Keywords Information theory, Information science and documentation, Information media, History,
Documentation, Audiovisual media
Paper type Research paper
During the nineteenth century, it became moreandmorecommonwithinthescientific
community to visually illustrate scientific knowledge, processes and results.
This development was partly due to the dominance of observation as the main
scientific method, and partly to technical improvements launched in the century new
printing techniques such as lithography, xylography and, at the end of the century,
photo mechanical reproduction methods made it both much easier and cheaper to
produce and print image illustrations. However, this illustration practice varied in
different scientific disciplines and different research branches; various techniques and
visual rhetoric were put into practice, and also the reason for using image illustrations
varied Plate 1 and Figure 1.
Both images above are illustrations in the book Människans förhistoria/The Prehistory of
Man from 1911, by the Swedish physician, anatomist and anthropologist, Gaston Backman
(18831964), and can be seen as examples of this variation. Although they are part of the
same publication, they differ completely in function and expression. In this paper, these
differences are taken as a starting point for a discussion on the role of images as
representations and information tools in scientific publications and practices.
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 75 No. 4, 2019
pp. 709-730
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-11-2018-0189
Received 13 November 2018
Revised 30 January 2019
Accepted 31 January 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The early work
of Gaston
Thus, the purpose of this paper is to discuss the characteristics and functions of images in
scientific practices, and the following questions will be asked:
RQ1. What makes an image scientific/informative?
RQ2. Why are some images informative and other images not?
RQ3. What characterises a scientific image in comparison to an artistic image?
RQ4. Can images be informative in different ways?
To address these questions, the text will look into the illustration practice of the
above-mentioned Swedish researcher Gaston Backman, who wrote several books on the
origin of the human species, human anatomy, human physical anthropology and
race biology (Plate 2).
In his publications, Backman made extensive and varied use of images to illustrate his
scientific ideas and reasoning, such as graphs, maps, drawings, photographs, oil paintings
and prints. His interest in images was not unique: images had long played an important role
in the research practice to which he belonged, e.g. anatomy, physical anthropology, eugenics
and scientific racism ( Jahoda, 1999; Bindman, 2002; Kjellman, 2013, 2014, 2016; Gould, 1996,
pp. 202-203; Maxwell, 2010; Pinney, 2012). How images were used and what functions they
played in these scientific contexts varied, however. Taking as a starting point Backmans
use of scientific illustrations, the outcome and consequences of this variation will be
Source: Backman (1911, p. 144)
Plate 1.
The creation of
a cave painting during
the Magdalénien era,
after Bölsche

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