Our imagination is another and still more serious source of error ; for if from the nature of the circumstances we expect to see any expression, we readily imagine its presence.(1) — Charles Darwin.
The Josiah Johnson Hawes photograph of etherisation, commonly called the "Reenactment daguerreotype," provides a great example of the gradations of visual agnosia that accompany and complicate a "reading" of a visual document that has become orphaned from its parentage. The difficulties are compounded when the document is damaged, poorly executed, or, as in the case of antique photographs like the Ether Dome daguerreotypes, compromised by the limitations of a nascent technology. Slow process speeds of pioneer photography instigated a modicum of "staging" that to modern eyes can be misinterpreted as quaint, inauthentic, or even aesthetically intended. Later entrainments (guesswork) added to an orphaned visual document are often subjective, or simply wrong, layering confusion on top of the guesswork. Take, for example, the more loaded revisions of the modern Foucaultian school, that might argue the dark frock coats worn by the MGH surgeons were the simulacra of institutional power and intimidation. Maybe, instead, the frock coats camouflaged spattered blood and were attired out of humane concern for the patient, who would have looked in horror upon the alternative of bloodied white shirts? Or perhaps they were simply the vestments of a profession that wanted to put some formal distance between the MGH surgeon and the barber surgeons of yore?
Jeffrey Mifflin is an excellent resource, from an archivist's perspective, on managing the subjectivity problem when cataloging medical photographs. Beautifully phrasing what could be an epitaph to this paper instead of the Darwin quote above, Mifflin wrote, "Historical photographs are fertile, underused, and vulnerable to misinpretation. They are, perhaps, the most immediate and affecting 'traces' of the past that we have, evoking 'thoughts of other days' in the viewer."(2) Emphasizing that context matters, Mifflin noted that the cartes-de-visite that Morton collected "to ingratiate himself" within the medical community, should be "viewed in the context of other historical traces," such as the ostentatious gold collar for a "small French medal" given to him by the Académie des sciences.(3) The Prix Montyon medal came with substantial award money that Morton used to purchase the collar. Another example Mifflin noted is the "self-serving biography" with the overweening title, Trials of a Public Benefactor, that Morton commissioned Nathan Payson Rice to write.(4 »») Central to the thesis of this paper is the steel engraving of the Abbott operation that illustrates the Rice book, drawn by the artist Henry Bryan Hall, who was copying from the Ether Dome daguerreotypes. Mifflin's simple but elegant solution to the subjectivity problem was a comprehensive form that can be filled out and attached to archival images to prevent future mishaps or restore an incomplete caption. Similarly, Dr. Stanley Burns's approach to cataloging a medical photograph is a "phototaxic" checklist that breaks down the same identifiers.(5) Both scholars counsel the necessity of a fundamental knowledge of the history and technology of photography and reproduction media when managing archives of medical photographs.
Darwin was aware of the subjectivity problem in visual documents and was one of the first scientists to test his theories with photographs exhibited to randomized groups, reporting the responses in his monograph, The expression of the emotions in man and animals. He studied the reactions of one group of "eleven persons, including some artists," who he presented with Duchenne's photograph of a young man with a "frowning brow," induced by "strongly galvanic contraction" of the pyramidal muscles.(6 »») Only one of the test subjects, "a girl," was able to identify the intended facial expression, namely, "surly reserve," but this hardly counts as an experimentum crucis if the artists in the group were all landscape painters! He presented the "best plates" of Duchenne's faradized "old man" to another cohort of "above twenty educated persons of various ages and both sexes," who were unable to correctly identify the emotion expressed in some of the plates, though neglecting to specify which ones.(7 »») An investigation of the platysma for signs of fear in about twenty patients undergoing chloroforming at St. Georges Hospital, were also inconclusive.(8 »»)
Getting at the taproot of the expression of emotions: distinguishing the false faradized and staged emotions from those springing from "natural" anima, was the point, so there were no right or wrong answers to Darwin's tests. It intrigues me that, after sifting out a mountain of gangue in the form of masterpiece and vernacular art reproductions, he believed he struck ore with photography, stating his heliotypes provided "faithful copies" that were "much superior" to "any drawing however carefully executed." Were the extraordinary character studies of the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) unbeknownst to him? Instead, Darwin relied heavily on the photographer Oscar Gustav Reijlander, the father of the mutable negative and the doctored positive! Perhaps this was because Reijlander's intellectual curiosity matched his own, and he was sympathetic to Reijlander's experimental photography that included reenactments (!) of old master paintings in order to assess their anatomical accuracy. Of greater value to Darwin was Reijlander's portrait collection of babies expressing "pure" emotion – proof prints that were rejected by his clientele who preferred the beatific shots of their children. See Phillip Prodger for further insight into Darwin and his methodology in gathering the visual evidence for his research.(9)
Darwin admitted that he, too, would have been just as "perplexed" were he presented certain plates from Duchenne "without explanation." However, 19th century scientific positivism was so secure in the indexical and inalienable reception of photography, that Francis Galton (1822-1911) and his followers believed an essential archetype could be produced from a composite of superimposed negatives, so long as the heads of their subjects were precisely aligned by a cephalometer and photographed within a specialized camera system. I never read anything revelatory on the theory of the Galton composite, but I suppose the logic goes something like this: if one photograph represents a truth epitome, then more is better, and the truth epitome that emerges from a stack of superimposed images should be even more convincing, right? Yet whereas text superimpositions confer specificity – even glancingly when they are wrong – visual superimpositions have the paradoxical effect of fuzzing out a reality ground. Galton was appropriating art, but it was a cheat of the faces of truth that entrain an icon. By so roundly rejecting art because it idealized beauty, and favoring instead the warts-and-all specificity of the scientific method, Darwin was rejecting the iconic power of a visual image, the ineffable without-which-not that makes the reenactment daguerreotype so compelling. Whereas the test of an indexical entrainment is proven in how many questions it answers, a test of the aesthetic concerns of an icon is proven in how many questions it fields, and the quantity of best guesses and discourse that follows.
Where do the Ether Dome daguerreotypes of Josiah Johnson Hawes fall on the subjectivity scale, index or icon? Certainly EDD Nos. 2-5, the photographs depicting actual surgeries prosecuted by John Collins Warren, were motivated to making a record of medical desiderata. The dissemination of medical knowledge, by all available means possible, is canonical for physicians and Dr. Warren was responding to innate professional instinct when he commissioned Hawes. Just as he had risked his reputation on Morton's experimental nostrum, with this same bold spirit he embraced photography, recognizing its semiotic value in medical praxis. By authorizing the Ether Dome daguerreotypes, Dr. John Collins Warren is a claimant to the introduction of the camera within a hospital system, anticipating by more than a decade when photography departments would start to appear in teaching hospitals around the world. Photograph EDD No. 1, however, is a story unto itself. If it is truly a staged reenactment, as claimed by many historians, then its lot must be thrown in with that of art. What follows is an exploration of the problems that proposition raises.
1.) Darwin, Charles (1873), "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals." London: John Murray ; p. 13.
2.) Mifflin, J (2007), "Visual Archives in Perspective: Enlarging on Historical Medical Photographs." In: The American Archivist; vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring-Summer), p. 32.
3.) Ibid; p. 44. Further discussion on Morton's cartes-de-visite and social climbing on page 62. Mifflin's treatise includes an extensive review and commentary of the literature on the reception and archiving of medical images, including the Ether Dome daguerreotypes.
4.) Rice, N (1859): "Trials of a Public Benefactor: As Illustrated in the Discovery of Etherization." New York: Pudney & Russell.
5.) Burns, S (1983), "Early Medical Photography in America: 1839-1883." New York: The Burns Archive (reprinted from the New York State Journal of Medicine); p. 1258-9.
6.) Darwin, Charles (1873); p. 231. Darwin was testing responses to Plate 2, Fig. 16, from the Petit édition of Duchenne's, Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine (Paris, 1862: Jules Renouard). The "young man" who Duchenne faradized was Jules Talrich (1826-1904), artist and model maker to the Faculté de médecine.
7.) Ibid; p. 14.
8.) Ibid; p. 300-301. Reported by Dr. William Ogle (1827-1912) of St. George's Hospital at the behest of Darwin.
9.) Prodger, P (1988), "An annotated catalogue of the illustrations of human and animal expression from the collection of Charles Darwin." Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.