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Corporealities: The Contested Body in 19th and 20th Century Medical Photography and Illustration

Specialist workshop
23 April 2005
Organisers: Claudia Stein (Warwick) and Suzannah Biernoff (Visual Culture, Middlesex University)

To what extent is modern medicine dependent on visual images and imaginings? Whose interests and what purposes – ideological, diagnostic, aesthetic, phenomenological, political – are served by the visualisation of human embodiment in its multitude of scientifically-mediated forms? What are photographs and other visual artefacts evidence of?

It has become common practice to question the objectivity of photographic images; to show that the camera is quite capable of lying and that photographic realism is nothing more than a reality effect. Corporealities takes up these concerns in relation to the visual cultures of nineteenth and twentieth-century medicine, where the ‘real’ body and its pathologies are more elusive and contested than one might suppose. Bringing together historians of art and medicine and practitioners in the visual arts, the workshop will approach questions of evidence, experience and knowledge in relation to a diverse range of case studies including photographic representations of chronic pain; early understandings of X-ray technology; Darwin’s use of images in his Expression of Emotions in Humans and Animals; public health posters; and surgical and anatomical illustrations.

Participants will explore the borderline between scientific and artistic photography; the reality effects – and emotional affects – of other visual media such as woodcut prints, drawings and watercolour – and the shifting concept of realism itself in relation to medical and scientific representations of the human body.

Invited speakers include: Suzannah Biernoff (Visual Culture, Middlesex University), Anthea Callen (University of Nottingham), Monika Dommann (University of Zurich), Robin O’Sullivan (independent scholar), Deborah Padfield (artist), Molly Rogers (independent scholar), Claudia Stein (University of Warwick), Julia Voss (Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin), Andrew Warwick (Imperial College)

Session One

Julia Voss (Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)
Hats, Beards and Velvet Jackets: Victorian Photography in Charles Darwin’s On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Abstract: Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions (1872) numbers among the earliest scientific books which contain photographic illustrations. Selling 9000 copies within four months it is also Darwin’s most popular work. In order to explain why Darwin preferred photography to other widespread and less costly techniques it has been argued that Darwin used photography as a „method to reinforce the appearance of objectivity“. In this context Duchenne de Boulogne experimental photographs of an old man which were first published in Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine (1862) and then reproduced in Expression of the Emotions have been discussed most frequently in recent literature. However, it was not Duchenne but Oscar Reijlander – an eccentric Sweden born studio photographer based in London - from whom Darwin took the most pictures for his publications although others had provided more. Whereas the majority of Darwin’s archival material stems from a lunatic asylum most of the published material is taken from studio photographers. Moreover, Expression of the Emotions also contains 21 animal illustrations which only in combination with the 32 photographs render the visual argument for the blurred boundary between man and animals complete. Yet, what was it that turned little girls wearing hats or a bearded studio photographer in a velvet jacket into suitable proponents for Darwin’s argument? What was the wider context of these photographs? In how far did he use photography in his research? How did he use photography in contrast to illustrations such as woodcuts? Rather than seeing Darwin as a pioneer of medical photography I will argue for viewing him as a late admirer of staged art photography. Thus, Expression of the Emotions will be placed within the context of studio photography, tableaux vivantess, illustrated magazines and book illustrations.

Molly Rogers (writer and independent scholar)
Photographic Meaning and Utility in the Peabody Museum’s Slave Daguerreotypes

Abstract: In 1850 the natural historian and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz commissioned a series of daguerreotypes depicting enslaved men and women from Columbia, South Carolina, plantations. The photographs were intended to function as evidence for the theory of separate creations, or polygenesis, a key concept of the emergent discipline of ethnology. Polygenesis, widely known as ‘Agassiz’s theory,’ was implicated in the efforts of Southern politicians to defend slavery against the increasing efforts of abolitionists. The daguerreotypes are thus examples of the early use of photography to support anthropological theories, theories that featured prominently in the race discourse of the antebellum period of American history. In this paper I will explore the meaning that was (or at least could have been) extracted from the photographs by the three men involved in their making, namely Agassiz, the daguerreotypist J.T. Zealy, and Columbia physician Robert W. Gibbes. I will also briefly touch on the perspectives of the Boston audience to whom Agassiz displayed the images in a public lecture. By considering how the daguerreotypes were regarded by a diverse group of people, I intend to show that the photographs are images caught between two genres – portraiture and anthropological photography – and that from this ambiguity or multiplicity of meaning they derive their impact as images.

Session Two

Professor Anthea Callen (Art History, University of Nottingham)
Diagnosing the visual: a medical case study

Abstract: As a way of conceptualising the physical body, the notion of ‘man as machine’ has a long history in both art and medicine in Western culture. By the end of the nineteenth and the beginnings of the twentieth century, however, this concept had taken a new turn in the light of advancing industrialisation and early mass production. The idea of the modern labouring man as a machine – or as part of a machine on a factory conveyor belt – gave a novel twist to this Enlightenment concept: new research into human ergonomics seemed to offer the possibility not just of greater physical perfection in the male body, but greater levels of working productivity, too. The conjunction of new modes of industrial production with new ergonomic research by physicians and engineers, and the advance of the Eugenics societies suggests a sinister network of forces manipulating ideas of male bodily perfection to the particular, profitable ends of social, and class, engineering. In the context then of WWI – the first ‘machine’ war – and the dehumanising treatment of ‘the men’ (as opposed to the officer classes) as ‘canon-fodder’, the abstract western ideal of male bodily perfection seemed yet further divorced from the grim lived reality of the broken body machine. Looking back from the present adds further telling dimensions: the athletic bodies examined at the Paris Olympics in 1900, and the lessons in physical development they then seemed to offer anatomist-physicians, seem in sharp contrast now to those of contemporary Olympic athletes whose built perfection depends so often on performance-enhancing drugs (we’re talking steroids here, rather than viagra). And as for the martial body, machine and man are fused (in the imaginary at least – so far) in comic book warriors and cinematic heroes like Schwarzenegger’s Robocop, and the problems of eugenic perfectibility through heterosexual union are abandoned in favour of a male body perfected by medico-science: hard, impenetrable, omnipotent and almost immortal, man becomes one with the machine, and woman – that troublesome creature – is removed from the frame entirely.

Dr Suzannah Biernoff (Visual Culture, Middlesex University)
Figuring Disfigurement: Henry Tonks and the art of surgery

Abstract: This paper is part of a larger research project on the visual culture of the First World War, and focuses on Henry Tonks' pastel drawings of wounded soldiers before and after facial reconstructive surgery. Part clinical record, part portraiture, this extraordinary series by Tonks – who trained as a surgeon before becoming an artist and Slade Professor – raises uncomfortable questions about the perception and cultural significance of facial disfigurement. Tonks' pastels will be compared to the 'before' and 'after' photographs documenting each case, and discussed in relation to his understanding of artistic objectivity and incidental beauty.

Session Three

Professor Andy Warwick (Imperial College, History of Science and Technology)
X-rays as Evidence in German Orthopaedic Surgery, 1895-1900

Abstract: Historians have found it difficult to give a general account of the early medical use of x-rays in medicine. While the rays were hailed by some as a miracle technology, their early medical application was patchy, often remained subsidiary to traditional methods of diagnosis and treatment, and was of disputed value. In this talk I argue that the selective appropriation of the new technology needs to be understood within the wider medical practice of the period. The argument is developed around the case of orthopaedic surgery in Germany, probably the first example in which doctors quickly made x-rays indispensable as a medical tool. I show that value of x-rays in this case was contingent upon an ongoing dispute, the theory and practice of surgical intervention, and the sociology of new surgical knowledge.

Dr Michael Sappol (Curator-Historian, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda)
Toward an Iconography of the Industrial Body: Fritz Kahn, Modernism and the Origins of Conceptual Medical Illustration

Abstract: The paper represents the beginnings of a study of the life and works of Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), one of the principal creators of the 20th-century conceptual medical illustration. Kahn, a German Jewish gynecologist, artist, and popular science writer, was part of a larger "visual education" movement that sought to use film, exhibition display and artful printed graphics as a revolutionary way of instructing, and transforming, mass audiences, a new technology of information and subjectivity. In his artwork, Kahn situated the body in industrial modernity -- and industrial modernity within the body -- using a modernist visual rhetoric influenced by surrealism, art deco, cubism and other contemporary aesthetic approaches. Directly and indirectly, during his lifetime his illustrations had a huge influence: on scientific illustration for the public; and on illustrations of the body in commercial graphics.

Session Four

Commentator: Luke White (Art, Philosophy and Visual Culture, Middlesex University)

Deborah Padfield (artist)
Perceptions of Pain: Objectifying the subjective experience of pain through photography

Dr Robin O’Sullivan (independent scholar)
‘The Steps in Between’: Bill Viola, the Anatomy of Sorrow and Empathetic Response in The Passions

Abstract: Bill Viola’s The Passion’s Project is an exploration of emotional expression with the intent of producing a typology of emotions. Crucial to this process, is the establishment of bonds of empathy between the viewer and each piece. As many have observed, and the artist himself readily admits, Viola’s video installations borrow significantly from medieval devotional art without explicitly restaging or reinterpreting these works. Instead, Viola radically transposes into modern media the compositions and strategies for creating empathy found medieval devotional art. In this paper I will put key pieces from Viola’s The Passions project in dialogue with medieval devotional imagery and writings to learn about the emotions, empathy and the imagination in medieval and post-modern contexts.