Thursday, April 16, 2009

Staged surgeries

Collection assessment at offsite storage has provided us with an opportunity to revisit the medically themed work of Lejaren à Hiller (aka Lejaren A. Hiller, Sr.), the American photographer known for elaborately staged scenes, dramatic lighting, and liberal retouching. Just exactly the sort of approach one would want for illustrations of surgery, right?

At least, that's what the firm of David & Geck, makers of surgical sutures, thought when they set out to create an advertising campaign in the late 1920s. In 1944, the images created by Hiller for Davis & Geck were collected in Surgery through the Ages: a pictorial chronical [sic]. The company had wanted "a master in the field of pictorial illustration, one capable of grasping the significance of the subject, capable of handling the many epochs covered with a combination of drama and technical mastery." Drama, they definitely got.

You may question the firm's judgment, but I really question the publisher's assertions in the "Note" prefacing the 1944 book. It begins:
Curiously, surgery has always been neglected in the pictorial arts.
Has it? Let's leave aside Rembrandt as being too obvious. But what about Eakins' Gross Clinic? What about Seligmann's iconic image of Billroth? What about any of the surgical lampoons by Rowlandson? A glance at the catalog of prints and drawings in the Clements C. Fry Collection in the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale University, or a search for "surgery" in the Wellcome Library's database of historical images provides us with numerous artistic representations of surgeries, created prior to 1944. And I don't think we should discount the long line of of talented artist-surgeons who illustrated their own works with stunning images worthy of museum display.

And what about the theory that some surgery is, itself, art?

Many people express amazement, after hearing that we work in a medical archives, that we can stand to look at photographs of medical procedures--especially ones involving the eye, say, or dermatologic diseases. I, however, find Hiller's work to contain some of the most garishly graphic images in the library. They were probably wicked fun to pose for, though...

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