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Picturing the unusual: medical photography as an 'experimental system'

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What is specifically medical about medical photographs? Clinical photography – the portrayal of disease symptoms – is usually considered to be the typical medical genre, both historically and in the present. Merely a representation of diseases, these photographs have been shown to contribute to endeavours of classifying diseases, of enabling the circulation of cases and of calibrating and influencing the notion of pathology in medicine as well as in non-medical contexts. I combine research results from my work on the visual history of AIDS with my current work on the visual archive of the Third Plague Pandemic (1894 – 1959) to question the scope and shape of this genre. In both cases, clinical photography has become a contested way of seeing. Photographs of the symptoms of people with AIDS became embroiled in representational politics and bound up in the larger epistemological crisis of medicine in the first decade of the epidemic. Photographs of the Third Plague Pandemic on the other hand, were largely concerned with ethnographic visualizations of the disease’s ecology, while clinical photographs seem to have been mostly insignificant to the advancement of knowledge about plague in the early 20th century.

Both cases extend our understanding of medical photography beyond the clinical photograph. Both cases also demonstrate the extraordinary significance of photography in the formation, production and distribution of knowledge about disease in and outside of medical publications and discussions. My paper will ask how we might be able to maintain a notion of medical photography if it is not reliant on the visibility of symptoms and signs of disease. Employing medical photography as an ‘experimental system’ (Rheinberger) I will tentatively argue for a wider understanding of medical photography as a picturing of unusualness and uncertainty in epidemic crises.

This talk is part of the History of Modern Medicine and Biology series.

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