Akimitsu Naruyama is a collector with a penchant for photographs of disfigured people. His activities and interests are not exhaustively documented on the net, but among other things, he collects photos of 19th century sideshow performers in the US by Chas (or Charles) Eisenmann, performers perhaps most famously involved in Tod Browning’s 1932 movie Freaks.
One day Mr. Naruyama found a box with 356 photos of disfigured Japanese people. These were clearly medical photographs, dating from the Meiji period. They showed people with diseases of the eye and the skin, with venereal diseases, with tumors. 150 photographs could be traced to a photographer called Tsutomu Ã”ta who had a studio in Okayama. It seems that Mr. Ã”ta was asked to thus illustrate articles in the medical journal “Geibi Iji”, written by doctors at the Okayama prefecture hospital. The remaining photographs had the name “Ikkaku Ochi” – medical student in Okayama and later doctor in Hiroshima – written on the back. The photographs must therefore have been made for the purpose of documenting rare diseases.
The exhibition is rather minimalistic: small photographs hung on the wall, or shown in vitrines, with text identifying the diseases shown wherever possible. An extract of the accompanying leaflet is hung on the wall. It describes, in rather flowery language, the history of the find, and provides some sort of justification why these pictures deserve to be shown: the photographs are rare documents in medical history, for nowadays medical methods prevent the arising of such disfigurements in the first place. In their “sad beauty”, these photographs strikingly differ from conventional Western medical photographs as shown in the standard tome “Pschyrembel”. They are empathic portraits of people treated with dignity and respect, with strong folkloristic background of Japan.
The text leaves the impression of an attempt to enumerate all imaginable reasons that could make these pictures interesting for the modern viewer. Yet, there is no reflection on the character of these photographs as photographs, and together with the minimalistic form of presentation, this is quite a bit disappointing.
Could one not have reflected further on what it means for us today to look at photographs of rare diseases from a time long ago, in a country far away? Why do we do this? Why are we asked to do this? Why are we asked to do this in such a minimalistic fashion, the photographs being divorced of the texts they were meant to illustrate? Would it not have been possible to go beyond rather pallid stereotypes – “sad beauty” – in describing the aesthetics of these photographs? Does the description of their “empathic” character, and the invoked contrast with Western medical photographs, really reflect anything over and above wishful thinking on the part of someone disgruntled with scientific attitudes in the West? Is the difference between these photographs and illustrations in Pschyrembel not rather one between different stages in development, and could the same “sad beauty” not have been found in early Western photographs of such disfigurements?
Not much can be found, web-wise, on the history of medical photography on a global scale, with detailed histories, case-studies, and such. The Institute of Medical Illustrators Archive is a phantastic resource for medical illustration and its history in the UK.