Imperialist notions of European superiority and global control nourished the interest in collecting and classifying information about human bodies. The camera was a powerful instrument for measurement and surveillance. Physical variations between human populations, initially aligned with interests in human evolution, were used later to trace patterns of migration and diffusion.
People were often photographed in standardised poses, holding measuring sticks or with identification labels. John Lamprey sought to quantify anthropometric measurements through the development of a grid system composed of a wooden frame with silk threads hung behind the subject.
Guides, such as the early editions of Notes and Queries in Anthropology published from 1874, included explicit instructions for taking anthropometric measurements, which were adopted by missionaries and colonial officials. These methods were unpopular and often resisted by the subjects of investigation. As a result, many anthropometric photographs were taken of people who were highly controlled, such as prisoners, hospital patients and indigenous peoples living on government reservations.
Today many indigenous groups are revisiting historic photographic collections to research their ancestry and to investigate past cultural practices. Contemporary artists have produced powerful images in response to the classification of historic photographs in museums and archives.