FOREWORD, Mütter Museum Historic Medical Photographs

 
 
 Jean-Auguste-Dominque  Ingress (1780-1867) La Baigneuse de Valpincon (The Bather of Valpincon), 1808, Oil on Canvas.

Jean-Auguste-Dominque  Ingress (1780-1867) La Baigneuse de Valpincon (The Bather of Valpincon), 1808, Oil on Canvas.

 
 Blanche Dumas as photographed in Paris by Pierre Petit circa 1880 (page 101) Mütter Museum Historical Photographs.

Blanche Dumas as photographed in Paris by Pierre Petit circa 1880 (page 101) Mütter Museum Historical Photographs.

 

It is the care and concern. The use of a chair. Or a table. The refined borders or an elaborate signature on the print. An oval matte. A sheet of velvet. The pedestal. A painted backdrop. The button-down shirt. The care to wax or grease and part the subject's hair. The classic pose, the sitter staring off, not into camera but beyond, as if staring into the future, his or her destiny, the very future that is now as we stare back agape, wondering what the hell went wrong here. Something horrible has happened. Birth, war. Or maybe just cancer. The photographer was there. The first photographers. 

When I was a premed, I was required to attend a semester of English composition and one of art history. As a photographer for twenty-odd years, thinking I knew everything, nothing was more revelatory as I learned the classics of Western civilization than my introduction to British poet and artist William Blake. What really struck me about Blake was that in the 1700s he had laid words to paper that were as contemporary as anything I had ever read. It is with this same wonderment that I view the historic photograph collection of the Mütter Museum. Today there are photographers who knowingly or unwittingly pay homage in their own work to these early Mütter masters and in so doing expose the ultimate truth in art: everything has been done before. 

It was painting that provided the before for photography. And photography stole heavily in its ardent pursuit to distinguish itself from mere copying or documentation. William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the modern photographic process of a negative and positive, the calotype, may have been the first to identify painting as a source in his photography. On exhibition of his photographs at the Royal Institution in London in 1839, he wrote that the pictures he had made using a camera obscura in the summer of 1835 of his house in the country "the first instance on record, of a house having painted its own portrait." And forever the two mediums were entwined. 

Early photography consisted largely of portraits and landscapes, long the terrain of painting. Yet it was the composition, the framing, the use of perspective in painting from which early photography borrowed most. But the early photographers were as much scientists as they were painters and illustrators with their cameras, applying scientific formulas and chemistry to the rules of painting and the power and limitations of light. That physicians and surgeons might bring their brethren scientists into their world to record their discoveries of human anatomy both ordinary and gone wrong, laying bare in two dimensions human suffering, seems only natural. Medical doctors were in fact the first serious amateurs with the time and money to invest in the art. 

Looking at the Mütter collection, I see two paintings, La Baigneuse de Valpincon and La Grande Odalisque, both by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and both in the collection of the Louvre, painted just before the dawn of photography. It is La Odalisque I recognize in Blanche Dumas as photographed in Paris by Pierre Petit circa 1880 (page 101). Were it not for her congenital third leg, dressed in sock and shoe, one might recognize the left lateral Sims position (hips resting on the edge ofthe bed, knees flexed, chest downward, left arm extended behind), developed by James Marion Sims, a general practitioner and surgeon, who circa 1845 performed surgical experiments in a small hospital he built on his own property for slave women suffering with vesicovaginal fistulas. The contrivances of La Baigneuse can be found throughout the book: drapery gracing the backdrop, if only from the side; a point of view at level with the subject; and the central act of La Baigneuse, the simple but erotic presentation of a woman's back—she looks away from the observer, her hair confined in a wrap. There she is in the photograph on page 6, of cicatrices and tuberculosis destroying the radius, and again on page 106, in the case of paralytic deformity before and after treatment with artificial limb, and then again on page 160 in Dr. Stelwagon's case of mycosis fungicides. We find it once more  in a photograph on page 164, surface wounds and the word MAY scratched into the dermis of a woman's back, urticaria dermographia erupting, an allergic rash in response to lesions to the skin. There are at least two more examples of La Baigneuse, but I'll let you find them. 

It is said that Thomas Eakins's best-known work, The Gross Clinic (1875), was influenced by Rembrandt's Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). Would it be far-fetched to suggest that the photograph on page 221 of Dr. William Osler and students in the pathology dissecting laboratory of Philadelphia General Hospital, 1884, was influenced by either of these two? Or that my contemporaries Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig might have been inspired by the laterally conjoined twins (ectopagus) on page 209? On page 29 the caption for the photograph showing an abdominal wound from the Civil War notes that "mirrors were sometimes used to provide a rear view of a patient's wound or disorder." But look at the photograph closely—what other convention is used? The man is a soldier in uniform; he stands with an object in his right hand. A cane? A telescope? A sword? Whatever this object, his pose, his demeanor, the air with which he stands with the thing indicates it must be his weapon. But why the mirror? Why not just a close-up showing the wound? Because the mirror reveals that the wound goes from front to back. This isn't just a medical photograph. Someone, the photographer maybe, was interested in something more. And he used the conventions of the time, the pose, the uniform, the artifice of a weapon; if not the photographer, I hear the subject speak, "This is Captain John Doe, a soldier who received a proud wound in battle." The photograph transcends mere documentation and tells much more. 

The photographs in the Mütter collection were taken in the era when photography was considered a mechanical exercise rather than an art such as painting or sculpture. To make their case, to prove that photography was indeed an art, photographers got a foothold imitating the painting of the time. A great effort was under way by the picture takers known as pictorialists to do more with an image; some such as Julia Margaret Cameron went so far as to blur their photographs. Muybridge studied movement and, as chronicled in the pages of this very book, was commissioned to create a set of images depicting neurologic disorders. And like the great photographers of this era, Mathew Brady, Fox Talbot, Daguerre, and others, these early medical photographers whose works have survived in the Mütter Museum's collection made a grand contribution. If their works were not considered art in their lifetimes, they now can be recognized as such today. The proof is here. 

 

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