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Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

by Tanya Sheehan.
Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, PA, 2011
216 pp., illus. 44 b&w. Trade, $74.95; paper, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-271-03792-9; ISBN: 978-0-271-03793-6.

Reviewed by Hannah Drayson

Doctored shows how, at the turn of the last century, Philadelphia’s emerging photographic community strove to establish photography as a respectable discipline. In particular, the book explores the metaphorical connections that were drawn between photography and medicine by examining the writings of photographic practitioners in the trade journals of the time. In the public eye, a variety of allusions that linked the medical profession with photographic portraiture influenced the understanding of the practice. Ideas of this type also shed light on how practitioners, and the professional bodies they formed, styled themselves and how they understood the nature and effects of the services that they offered.

Among the problems faced by photographers keen to clarify the valuable, trustworthy and professional nature of their discipline, were the existing allusions drawn by the public between portraiture and the less glamorous and enjoyable practice of dentistry. The discomfort experienced whilst having one’s portrait taken was often noted in popular discourse, it was necessary for sitters to maintain a still position for the few minutes that were the duration of the exposure. This period of forced immobilization was often described by sitters as an ordeal, rarely improved by the involvement of various photographer’s tools, such as metal clamps, that hidden behind subject’s bodies, would fix heads in position. As Sheehan points out, the discomfort of this is visible in the images, the dour expressions of early photographic sitters testament to the impossibility of holding a smile for the necessary time period to expose an image.

The book offers a breadth of approaches to understanding the apparent connections between medicine and photography, all of which are embedded in the visual culture of the time. Some are more speculative than others, for example the chemical knowledge and technical apparatus required for darkroom practice and the allusions to the darkroom practice of the photographer being to ‘treat’ the photograph as a patient and prescribe the correct cure. Another chapter explores the use of lighting in the studio in the dark room in relation to contemporary enthusiasms for the use of coloured light for healing practices.

One of the central understandings of the synergies in emerging photographic and medical practice is the discussion of portraiture as a form of surgical operation, a theme that Sheehan also returns to in the contemporary context in one of the final chapters of the book. The pun of the book’s title of course reminds us of the double meaning of the word ‘doctoring’ as a verb, and the knowing manipulation of representation. By choosing what to include, both in the pose and costume of a sitter, as well as in the way that they were lighted, photographers and their sitters collaborated on the production of portraits that can be understood to serve particular purposes. The darkroom processing of the images, offered the chance to undertake a range of manipulations, such as the removal of blemishes or lightening skin. Photographers were able to make images that presented individuals at their best, offering the portrait as testimony for an idealized and healthy self, reframing them as a subject as a certain type of person, socially, economically and physiologically.

Sheehan’s book offers a breadth of perspectives on a very particular historical moment and theme that connects to the visual culture and social context of the time and enriches understandings of the historical emergence of photographic culture and its motivations. Doctored’s discussion of the mediating effects of photographic technique on both individuals and social groups who sat for their portraits suggests that there is more to be understood regarding how the productive nature of representation is understood in disciplines that are traditionally considered to be external to medical practice. As Sheehan’s text shows, photography, as the emerging realist representational practice was itself understood, even if only weakly, as a way to improve health, and the role of the photographer as a doctor, as it relates to the power that is afforded to the creator of a representation can also reflect back upon hospital practices.


Last Updated 1st September 2013

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