Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Medical and art photography

"The Kiss" (1982) by American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin and "Dissected Head in Soup Plate" (1905) by American physician Howard Brundage, M.D., discussed in Rachel A. Derner, "Joel-Peter Witkin and Dr. Stanley B. Burns: A Language of Body Parts in History of Photography 23:3 (1999): 245-253.
I read a very good paper (referenced above) the other day which compared the medical photographs in the Burns Archive with the fine art photography of Joel-Peter Witkin, in light of the fact that Burns and Witkin collaborated on the book Masterpieces of Medical Photography. Bear with me as I use my blog as a vehicle for synthesizing the main points of the article...
The author of this paper examines how art and medicine both allow bodies to represent something other than - and independent of - the persons who inhabit them. For instance, through the medium of photography, the body becomes the equivalent of its pathological condition. Photography arrests the surface of the body in space and time, and medicine uses the camera to freeze the medical interpretation of the body. Derner separates medical photography into three categories: practical (routine medical images like x-rays, used to diagnose disease), justified (before and after images, for instance, used to justify medical treatment), and spectacular (images that have no discernable clinical value, but represent medicine's authority over dead bodies). She points out that the medicalized human body is socially constructed, yet seemlessly naturalized: we see medical meaning as inherent to a body, rather than applied to it. But in fact the narratives of the body are embedded even in medical images, as when "Dissected Head in Soup Plate" conjures up visions of the story of Salome or the paintings of Gericault. It is assumed that the subject matter was collected by disinterested doctors and that the medical context therefore erases responsibility for the head's identity. Such photos speak a language of body parts, for instance symbolic of preservation.
The visual morpheme of the severed head makes several appearances in the work of artist Joel-Peter Witkin. In his photographs, he creates still lifes using the medicalized body (or parts of it) to make it aesthetically elegant - rendering severed limbs the equivalent of fruit. He presents the viewer an allegory of natural versus pathological using imagery that - by the seemingly objective authority of medicine - gives us permission to look. Witkin's stance is that he didn't do anything - that the head already existed and it was the pathologist who cut it in half, he just happened to be there with a camera. But this is contradicted by the positioning of the head, and also by his overworking of the surface, such as drawing the missing body outside the frame of the photo, betraying his anxiety about the beheading. Witkin tells the story that the head of an auto accident victim rolled to his feet as a child, but his mother refutes this. Whether or not the memory is real, it informs the exposure of the photograph, denying it (as art) the objectivity that the medical photo claims by virtue of the assumption that its interpretation did not occur until after the photograph was taken. Nevertheless, art validates Witkin's composition, medicine validates his materials.

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