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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access September 30, 2019

Of Human Seismographs: The Multifaceted Roles of Pictures in the Meaning Making of Earthquakes

  • Susanne Leikam EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Cultural Studies


This article investigates the multifaceted roles that pictorial representations of the human body have played in earthquake visualizations. From the first conventional repertoires in early modern Europe to the photographic iconographies of the early-twentieth-century United States, human bodies have served as tangible proxies—human seismographs—visualizing not only the actual intensity of the seismic forces but also the severe disruption of contemporary cultural ideas, beliefs, and worldviews. As a general pictorial motif, the human body moreover allows viewers to emotionally identify and develop empathy, enhancing the pictures’ cultural efficacy. Drawing on samples from San Francisco’s earthquake of 1906, the study shows how the staging of bodies has stayed a central signifier of the cultural disruption even after seismology brought about the demystification of earthquakes. With the financialization of earthquakes and the shift of the public’s attention to the aftermath of earthquakes, human bodies became materialized ideology, strategically appropriated in order to promote political, economic, and ideological agendas. As such, the human body emerges as a juncture in the popular earthquake iconographies linking—but also complicating—competing categories such as, for instance, mind and matter, private and public, local and (trans)national, individual and collective.

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Received: 2018-10-06
Accepted: 2019-03-13
Published Online: 2019-09-30
Published in Print: 2019-01-01

© 2019 Susanne Leikam, published by De Gruyter Open

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Public License.

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