Photography in the 20th Century: Sex, Race, and Medicine (Session D)
The terms “medicine” and “photography” both tend to convey a sense of objectivity: medical knowledge purports to be grounded in scientific fact and photographs are often thought to serve as an index of their subject. In reality, however, neither medicine nor photography are entirely objective; both are shaped by, and in turn shape, cultural discourses on normativity, health, and superiority.
In this course, we will focus on medical photographs of the body taken between the 1880s and the 1980s. After a general historical introduction to the genre of medical photography, we will consider the ways in which these photos were often used to implicitly or explicitly support predominant social views of marginalized bodies as “unhealthy,” “degenerate,” or “diseased.” Focusing primarily on photographs of Black, queer, female, and Jewish subjects, we will examine the ways in which social and political anxieties about “the other” crept into purportedly objective scientific documents of the human body. We will also consider how these photos functioned within dominant visual cultures that championed an aesthetic of “health,” “purity,” and “normality.”
Moving across time and space, from Parisian hysteria hospitals to the AIDS wards of San Francisco, we will confront photographs that challenge our conceptions of truth and ask us to reconsider medical science’s troubled—and often violent—relationship with images. In each case, we will give significant attention to works by photographers who fought against these harmful discourses, using the medium to reclaim their identity and affirm their vitality.
This course fulfills the following Major requirements: Geographical area (E) and Chronological period (III).