Skip to main content

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

Conference Report

On 23 April 2005, the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwickhosted a workshop entitled ‘Corporealities: the Contested Body in 19th and 20th Century Medical Photography and Illustration’. The event provided a forum for a discussion of the extent of modern medicine’s dependency on visual images and imagining, and a consideration of the interests and purposes served by the medical visualisation of the human embodiment in its multitude of scientifically-mediated forms. Eight speakers presented their work from a variety of disciplines and expertise. The event was organised by Dr Claudia Stein (University of Warwick) and Dr Suzannah Biernoff (Middlesex University).

A number of common themes emerged from the seemingly disparate papers which provided opportunities for some lively debate and discussion over the course of the workshop. The heremeneutics surrounding the categorisation of images – photographic and art- emerged from the presentations by Julia Voss (Max-Planck-Institute, Berlin), Molly Rogers (writer and independent scholar) and Suzannah Biernoff (Middlesex University). How did the different composers expect these images to be read and what was the vernacular vocabulary of their audiences? Voss suggested that the domestic settings and the oval format of the photographs in Charles Darwin’s Expressions, can be interpreted as adhering to the portrait rather than the scientific tradition. Rogers’ work considered the possible attribution of Louis Agassiz’s slave daguerreotypyes as scientific objects and identified the poses of the slave-front and side views-as reminiscent of later anthropological ‘objective’ science. She contextualised and problematised such a categorisation prior to the emergence of the ‘science’ of anthropology. The danger of adopting a teleological approach – scientific objects in the making – was discussed. Again, similarities with portraiture- clothing, posture, casing- were identified suggesting that their automatic categorisation as scientific objects is no longer possible.

This issue of categorisation was also present in the work of Biernoff on the Henry Tonks. Tonks, who trained as a surgeon before becoming an artist and Slade Professor, completed a series of pastel drawings of wounded soldiers before and after facial surgery. Can these drawings be defined as portraiture or medical archive? The subjects were ‘wounded servicemen who had been referred to Harold Gillies’ pioneer for facial surgery. The drawings remained in Tonks’ room at Queens’ Mary Hospital at Sitcup and were not on public display. His motivation in completing these works was unclear. They were not the only visual record of the surgical procedures. Stereograhic photographs were also taken of the patients, pre and post operatively and were included in the medical archives of the procedures. The question of motivation and the function of the drawings formed the basis of a lively debate highlighting the drawings’ possible role in professional promotion and the tensions between the ideals surrounding military masculinity and war-time horror. As with Louis Agassiz’s slave daguerreotypyes, the subjects’ permission was not sought before the commission of the images highlighting the power relationship between the viewed and the viewer and contesting the appropriateness of their categorisation as portrait. Both sets of images have been subject to historic and contemporary censorship. Deborah Padfield (artist) emphasised the centrality of the power relationship between patient and doctor in the presentation of her work on patients’ representation of their understanding and experience of pain.

Many of the papers found the exploration of the composers, and indeed the images’ relationship with ‘objectivity’ and ‘authenticity’ fruitful. Voss interrogated this issue in her consideration of Darwin’s willingness to alter images during the production process. She discounts the suggestion that by altering the images Darwin was seeking to add greater import to scientific ‘authenticity’ of his work, but wished to perfect them as studies of expressions which would be active to a non-scientific audience. The issue was particularly prevalent in Warwick Anderson’s (Imperial College, London) presentation on x-rays as evidence in German Orthopaedic surgery. The use of x-rays as objective evidence in medical diagnosis and its subsequent take-up by the profession in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was explored. Using the example of the treatment of congenital dislocation of the hip in Germany, he asserted that ‘x-rays produced new definitions of what constituted a satisfactory cure.’ The work highlighted the tension between the anatomical correctness of the patient, as suggested by x-rays, and the functionality of the hips under treatment. Prior to the introduction of x-rays the successful treatment of a dislocated hip was defined by the patients’ ability to walk. Surgeons such as Albert Hoffa, one of the leading exponents of orthopaedic surgery, paraded children under treatment during presentations of his work to ‘prove’ their recovery. The introduction of x-rays problematised this definition of recovery, the x-rays showed that the treated hips were not always anatomically ‘correct’ suggesting that ‘a new kind of visual display in which the anatomical, rather than functional effect of the operation, became the main focus of interest’.

This late nineteenth century theme of the tension which existed between the anatomical correctness and the functionality of the body as a machine, and concerns with degeneracy and modernity was present in Anthea Callen’s (University of Nottingham) presentation on the ideals of the labouring male body and Michael Sappol’s (National Library of Medicine, Bethesda) study of the work of Fritz Kahn. Sappol gave a fascinating presentation of examples of Kahn’s conceptual medical illustrations from his works published in the first half of the twentieth century. It was, as stated by Sappol himself, ‘an appreciation of Kahn’s art and career’. Kahn situated ‘the body in industrial modernity’ and the presentation touched on many of the themes which had emerged earlier in the day; the reading and viewing of medical illustrations by domestic, non-scientific audiences and the extent to which science and knowledge objectify the body, resulting in the loss of emotion and humanity. The theme of emotion, and its evocation, was a focus of Robin Anne O’Sullivan’s (independent scholar) examination of Bill Viola’s, The Passions. The affect of his series of visual images on an audience and their ability to view and read them was a primary concern of her study. Comparing The Passions to the devotional art of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, O’Sullivan contested that a limiting factor of Viola’s work was the inability of modern audiences to fully ‘embody’ and empathise with the images. Unlike the devotional art of earlier periods audiences were no longer aware of how to engage with such images, they no longer provided the ‘catalyst to meditation’ Viola intended. O’Sullivan drew on a theme present in many of the other studies, the impact different cultures of empathy and of reading had upon the use of medical illustration.


Catherine Cox