Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 19, 2012
Tanya Sheehan Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. 216 pp.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $74.95 (9780271037929)

The phrase “the medicine of photography” may very well draw a blank in the minds of even the most experienced photographic historians. Photography’s development through the latter half of the nineteenth century is not usually told in terms of medicine, but in terms of art, with the camera styled as a “solar pencil” able to match painting’s aesthetic capabilities. Yet in this highly original book, Tanya Sheehan showcases a vast, alternative narrative in which cameras were seen as scalpels, developing chemicals as therapeutic drugs (3), and photographers as “doctors of photography” (30) possessing the ability to inspect, diagnose, and rehabilitate diseased and disordered bodies. Focusing on urban studio photographers in the city of Philadelphia between the late 1850s and 1890, Sheehan examines the ways in which “medical metaphors and models” (2) were used to elevate the cultural authority of individual photographers and photography as a whole. She uses a “vast yet understudied body of photographic literature” (21) published in trade journals in Philadelphia as her primary evidence, an eclectic, hybrid source of technical advice, advertisements, records of meetings, short stories, and even photographic humor. In general, Sheehan is interested in the social and cultural valences of photography as a practice rather than in the look or composition of photographs per se, a tendency that may confound those looking for in-depth analysis of images; but her conclusions about the ways in which photography’s authority was constructed with and through medicine are closely argued and rewarding.

Serious interest in photography’s application to medicine is not new; photographic historian Alison Gernsheim first published a two-part scholarly article on the subject in 1961 (“Medical Photography in the Nineteenth Century, Part I” Medical and Biological Illustration [April 1961]: 85–92; and “Medical Photography in the Nineteenth Century, Part II” Medical and Biological Illustration [July 1961]: 147–56) and many others have followed suit with focused inquiries. Sheehan breaks new ground by reversing the usual terms, however, asking not how medicine acted on photography, but rather how photography presumed to act upon medicine. This reversal can result in rather stunning, even absurd claims, and Sheehan acknowledges that photographers often fantasized that their social contributions were “limitless” (47). A case in point occurred in the early 1870s as a Philadelphia photographer championed cyanide, used in the developing process, as a medical cure-all. But Sheehan is careful to tie these claims to broader social phenomena, arguing that photography’s medical construction helped to materialize “a fantasy of respectability that was synonymous with whiteness and health” (17). This study is therefore contextualized within a wider cultural field than that of photography, and it focuses on issues such as immigration, urbanization, racial differentiation, and the Civil War and Reconstruction. A cultural, rather than art-historical, account such as this complements the growing attention to vernacular and commercial photography, steering the terms of the debate away from art-photography movements, seen in groups ranging from London’s Brotherhood of the Linked Ring to Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo Secession.

Sheehan begins with an exploration of the ways in which photographers attempted to organize and institutionalize their profession, showing how they modeled their efforts after those of doctors centered around Philadelphia in the second half of the century. Concerned that they might be mistaken as “Cheap Johns,” “dabsters” (27), or, worse, mere mechanical operators, photographers emulated the American Medical Association in the creation of a national professional body and, like doctors, pushed for rigorous, compulsory education that would stem the rising tide of would-be studio photographers. They idealized medicine “as a highly successful profession structured by powerful institutions and populated by rigorously educated gentlemen” (28), although Sheehan notes that medicine, too, was a profession in crisis, riven by debates over “irregular” practices like homeopathy, patent medicines, and the like. Nevertheless, photographers exhorted their colleagues to avail themselves of the excellent anatomy and physiology courses in Philadelphia, including the anatomical lectures of Dr. William Keen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts which was, for a time, led by Thomas Eakins.

What was at issue, Sheehan argues, was not just education, but epistemology, or “the kind of knowledge that photography ought to be” (45). The debate seems never to have resolved itself satisfactorily, but commercial photographers successfully positioned themselves as trained professionals whose knowledge about the body’s interior qualified them to depict and even correct those bodies in their photographic practices. As in the rest of the book, Sheehan is alert to contradictions and paradoxes, qualifying her argument and doubling back to consider the other side. Given the complexity of the debates she examines, this can weigh down the text itself, and her argument is clearer and more forceful in the remaining chapters as she considers photographic technologies and their effects on bodies (of both photographers and their subjects), objects such as carte de visite portraits, and the physical space of the studio.

The core of the book considers photography’s links with different varieties of medical intervention in the nineteenth century, including surgery (chapter 2), a long-forgotten therapy known as the “blue light cure” (chapter 3), and the public health movement (chapter 4). Chapter 2, “Making Faces and Taking Off Heads: The Operations of Photography and Medicine,” is one of the book’s triumphs, a fascinating exploration of photography’s vexing and productive connection to “operative medicine.” The popular press recounted the widely held notion that portrait photography was akin to dentistry, or even torture, portraying photographic “operators” who “coolly” fixed subjects into “an iron clamp” (51), otherwise known as the posing stand. The fact that the operating theater and the portrait studio were both illuminated by skylight helped further support the resemblance. But such comparisons incensed photographers, and by analyzing pre- and post-operative photos of maimed Civil War soldiers as well as less radical reconstructions of the body achieved by photographic retouching (“doctoring”), Sheehan shows how photographers encouraged the notion that their cameras possessed healing powers.

If photographers were anxious to rescue their reputations from the weird and the macabre, one gets the sense that Sheehan is not. Her account teems with strange characters. There is the “good little invisible sprite,” named “Doctor Photo,” that drives out the “‘evil’ spirits of toothache, rheumatism, and neuralgia” (1), an animated carte de visite who records her indignation at being bathed in developing fluid (118), and, in Sheehan’s final chapter dealing with the medicine of photography in the digital age, the comedian and plastic surgery-devotee Joan Rivers. It is somewhat paradoxical that these strange details are most often marshaled as evidence of a desire on the part of nineteenth-century photographers for a solid, middle-class respectability. This thread of the argument surfaces throughout Sheehan’s text. Readers are told again and “yet again” that “medical metaphor supports the professionalization of those who practiced studio portraiture” (120). These claims are perfectly plausible, but they could bear further complication. How was “respectability,” a keyword for Sheehan’s argument, figured for individual studio photographers? How attuned were clients to these social distinctions, and did the luster of medical authority actually drive more of them to patronize specific studios? Without some notion of how individual photographers and their studios were received by the paying public, Sheehan’s notion of “authority” can seem homogenous, or, at least, one-sided.

In chapter 3, Sheehan looks at the blue light cure, a wildly popular treatment in the 1870s that involved sitting under panes of colored glass in order to treat all manner of diseases and infirmities. This chapter in particular illustrates some of the perils and promises of Sheehan’s middle three chapters examining material resemblances between photography and medicine and their discourses. She contends that blue light therapy and commercial portrait photography, which also placed people under overhead skylights, sometimes even using blue-colored glass to soften details and reduce exposure time, were “technologies of light” (83) that deserve to be considered side by side. Sheehan acknowledges that this connection was “never explicitly articulated by photographers or their public” (84), and one gets the sense that she would have liked nothing more than to discover period sources that did just that. Yet Sheehan convincingly connects these practices to the discourse of whiteness, arguing that light itself was implicated in making (or un-making) racial identity. Light—both blue-tinted and au naturel—was recommended as a clinical therapy for “etiolated bodies” in crowded urban conditions, but with its ability to darken skin, “it also had the potential to close the perceived gap between the races” (104), a frightening prospect indeed for whites in Reconstruction-era Philadelphia. Photographers, too, could darken or, more likely, lighten the appearance of a sitter’s skin in a given portrait, governing both her “physiological condition and social identity” (95; emphasis in original).

Much of Sheehan’s project stands as a kind of answer to the ahistorical debates in twentieth-century photographic theory about the photograph’s indexicality and ontological essence, and these critics hover at the margins of much of the book. As Sheehan writes, “Doctored . . . challenges a tendency among historians of photography, even those attentive to social context, to define photographic authority exclusively as the so-called objectivity of the photographic image.” Instead, she continues, “the perceived rehabilitative powers of portrait photography were just as important as its ‘reality’ when it came to defining the medium” (6). While Sheehan does not deny photography’s close connection with the body, she resists the elegiac, poetic, and reflexive manner in which those connections are often made, restoring the agency, the social anxiety and complexity, and the everyday strangeness of the operators themselves to the process.

In distancing herself from the context-less image at work in some of the history of photography’s critical forebears, Sheehan may have erred on the side of too much context, and one hopes that her next project will involve more sustained image analysis. Nevertheless, Doctored is a finely detailed examination of the social and historical factors surrounding photography’s use of medicine, grounded in latter nineteenth-century Philadelphia’s vibrant cultural brew. Using photographic periodicals that were hidden in plain sight, Sheehan has given us an inventive book that illuminates our understanding of the body, both social and physical, and its role in the nascent years of photography.

Catherine Holochwost
Phillip and Patricia Frost Postdoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian American Art Museum