Jesse Olszynko-Gryn and Patrick Ellis (eds), The British Journal for the History of Science, Special Issue: Reproduction on Film

Jesse Olszynko-Gryn and Patrick Ellis (eds), The British Journal for the History of Science, Special Issue: Reproduction on Film, 50.186 (September 2017), 150 pp. ISSN: 0007-0874

This special issue offers a new perspective on reproductive film through exploring the convergence of biological and mechanical reproduction, asking ‘How did reproduction shape film and vice versa?’ (386). Whilst the articles in this edited collection focus on developments in Britain and the United States from 1910 to the present day, the introduction by Jesse Olszynko-Gryn and Patrick Ellis provides a broader geographical and historical view, considering the history of reproduction on film from the late nineteenth century. Through examining technological and cultural developments, they set up the central concerns and themes that recur throughout the collection. Ranging from film and television to digital, medical imaging, and from the work of individuals, such as Sparks and DeLee, to analyses of organisations and industry, the articles are diverse in both their content coverage and approaches, yet the result is a cohesive collection that highlights the tensions and paradoxes in producing moving images of reproduction. Individually, each article contributes a new dimension to this area of scholarship but in conjunction they effectively demonstrate the continuity of key social and cultural attitudes, including the desire to conceal and censor audio and visual references to reproduction in moving media, as well as issues about the perception and meaning of these images.   

The chronological structure of the collection enables us to progress historically through intersecting but varied articles. In the first article, Patrick Ellis provides an illuminating examination of Electra Sparks’ campaign for a cine-therapy for pregnant women. In detailing Sparks’ philosophy and work, which is based on New Thought and a belief in the power of images to heal or harm, Ellis establishes one of the integral, recurring, and pertinent themes of this special issue  ̶  maternal impressions, and the importance of the perceived relationship between images, reproduction, and the health of mothers and unborn babies. The importance of perception continues in Caitjan Gainty’s article, as she emphasises that whether ‘the birth had actually happened in the way that had been captured on film’ is not consequential to understanding ‘the nature and power of the streamlined birth, which worked when one prioritized and believed in the power of perception’ (448). Gainty skilfully combines analysis of Joseph DeLee’s obstetric practice, and his own filmic reproductions of birth, with Pare Lorentz’s film, The Fight for Life (1940), based on DeLee’s obstetric work. Through this dialogue of materials, the parallels between labour and film production resound, particularly the ways in which, in a manner similar to labour, film production can be streamlined to create the appearance and impression of a safer, cleaner, more efficient birth. Whilst the first two articles focus on beliefs about the benefits of reproduction on film, David A. Kirby considers how reproduction in films generated fear, indignation, and opposition from censorship groups in the U.S, who considered such content to be horrific, especially for prospective mothers. As the first comprehensive examination of film censorship and reproduction, Kirby delivers a compelling cultural analysis of the correspondence and negotiations between film companies and censorship groups, paving the way for further investigation, particularly in terms of religious influences over film production.

Moving forward to the 1950s, Salim Al-Gailani contributes to an emerging area in examining Grantly Dick-Read’s film that advocates natural childbirth, noting that ‘historians are only beginning to attend to the processes of communication that made the ideal of un-anaesthetised birth so resonant’ (474-75). In the case of Dick-Read this meant presenting the results and appearance of natural childbirth rather than showing the methods used to achieve such a birth. As with the other articles that focus on the work of an individual, Al-Gailani’s focus on Dick-Read is not restrictive but rather serves as a lens for demonstrating broader developments, trends, and shifts in both the world of film and of reproduction. Although many medical professionals opposed Dick-Read’s film Childbirth without Fear, Al-Gailani shows how it ‘both pushed the boundaries and set the parameters for representing and viewing the facts of life on screen’ (493), particularly through its seminal status as the first footage of real labour to be shown on television by Panorama in 1957, heralding a landmark challenge to the taboo surrounding moving images of reproduction. The increasing presence and visibility of reproductive matters continues in ‘Thin Blue Lines’, which investigates how the aesthetics of pregnancy testing on screen accelerated the commercial success of Clearblue. Noting the lack of historical accounts that explain how the pregnancy testing scene became a conventional trope on screen, Olszynko-Gryn identifies that, from the early 1990s, product placement began to play a role. Although the prevalence of pregnancy testing on screen shows a shift towards social acceptance of such presentations, Olszynko-Gryn illustrates the complexity and contradiction within this, arguing that the ‘Clearblue close-up ambiguously concealed as much as it revealed’ (495), particularly as it directed viewers’ attention away from the messier processes in conception and reproduction. Bringing us to the present day, Janina Wellmann’s article examines the new, innovative visual techniques employed in ‘conceiving’ the digital embryo. In asking ‘what exactly is visualized in these movies – an organism, data, movement?’ (522) – this study of computational moving images connects with the thematic concerns of the preceding articles, namely issues of appearance, representation, perception, and meaning.  

Whilst the varied articles provide a multifaceted response to the question of how reproduction and film have shaped each other, the collection also demonstrates sensitivity in its consideration of the wider social and cultural influences on reproduction and film. Thus, we see that, in any historical moment, shifting factors such as religion, morality, ethics, medical debate, politics, and economics, are fundamental in defining the symbiotic relationship between reproduction and film. The scope of the articles, and the multitude of defining influences mean that this special issue will be of interest and importance to a broad audience with an array of interests and academic specialities.

Abigail Oyston, Lancaster University