One of the early medical uses of photography that has been more extensively studied are the photographs of hysterical women taken at the Parisian hospital La Salpêtrière. Under the direction of the Dr Jean-Martin Charcot, neurologists and clinicians started to study hysteria, a disease that was mainly characterised by the absence of a set of coherent symptoms and causes. Among the methods that Charcot and others established to define these symptoms was photography. There has been much discussion on whether Charcot actually used visual evidences to do his research, or only as pedagogical tools to disseminate his findings. Anyhow, Bourneville and Regnard opened a photographic service around 1875, and started to portray the patients – not without difficulty. The attacks could not be (or were not supposed to be) foreseen, and the women moved too fast to record their poses.
These are important photographs for many reasons. They did help Charcot to establish his expertise on hysteria and to gain reputation. He had such a success that one of the most recurrent critics towards his theories was that hysteria had become a fashionable disease, and that no hysterical woman behaved in such a perfect way as the hysterics of the Salpêtrière. Basically, he was accused of constructing the disease. But from a historical viewpoint, these photographs also tells us much about, at least, two related things: gender and the gestures of the body.
Most of the patients were, in fact, women. Although Charcot also recognised the male hysteria, in this first stage (1875-1880) all the photographs were about women. Women who were indeed in bed clothes or almost naked and adopting strange and erotic positions with their bodies, which were out of their control -they were not conscious during the attacks. But the photographers, the doctors and the viewers of the photographs, published in the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, were all -almost all- men. The photographs in this post correspond to phase of “passional attitudes”, which was highly erotised.
These photographs also reveal changes in the conception of the expression of the passions. Against Darwin and Duchenne, Bourneville and Regnard were not very interested in the faces of their patients. Photographs had to capture the symptoms of the hysteria, and hysteria manifested itself through the whole body. Therefore, the clinical interest in defining the typical phases of hysteria led to consider that passions were expressed through gestures as much as through facial expressions. The focus shifted from the face to the body.
I consider highly suggesting the fact that the interest in the body came hand in hand with the sexualization of female bodies. But for this project, I am interested in how gestures became problematic from a photographic point of view. If hysteria manifested itself through a whole attack, how could single photographs of single moments capture the disease? In the next post we will see how the photographer Albert Londe tried to answer these questions.