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Vol. LXV, No. 15
July 19, 2013

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Photography as ‘Truth’ Has Always Been In Dispute, Greenberg Says

If you’re like most people, you carry around a cellphone in your pocket, one that likely has a camera in it, too. Some of these little cameras are so advanced that they can take high-definition photos and print them out for you on the spot. But what about the time when taking photos was new technology—how did the camera work its way into the culture of medicine?

“Things used to be simpler, photographically,” said Dr. Stephen Greenberg, who recently spoke in Lister Hill Auditorium in a presentation titled, “Ink and Silver: Medicine, Photography, and the Printed Book, 1845-1880.” Greenberg is coordinator of public services in NLM’s History of Medicine Division.

Displaying an 1845 double-box camera, which had no shutter and no aperture controls, and then a recent Nikon digital single lens reflex camera, he observed, “We are very far from the original item [camera] here…our technology changes every 20 minutes.” The Nikon, he said, “is really not a camera, but a computer—so much processing goes on inside.”

The beginnings of what we now know as photography began with daguerreotypes, named after Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Instead of making a negative, it made only one “positive” inside the camera by exposing a silver-coated copper plate to light for several minutes at a time.

People expect photography to be honest, accurate and reproducible, said Dr. Stephen Greenberg. “Of course none of these are true. Photography is infinitely mutable, and always was.”

People expect photography to be honest, accurate and reproducible, said Dr. Stephen Greenberg. “Of course none of these are true. Photography is infinitely mutable, and always was.”

Greenberg traced the evolution of photography, dubbed “the art of Truth” by The Lancet in 1859, from daguerreotypes—one-of-a-kind plates that couldn’t be put into books or medical journals—through the innovations of William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented sensitized paper for image reproduction; Frederick Scott Archer, whom Greenberg called “the inventor of modern analog photography”; to lithography, collotypes, gravure and other types of reproduction. “There are so many processes [for image reproduction] now that you can’t even shake a stick at them,” Greenberg said.

He noted that people expect photos to be three things: honest, accurate and reproducible. But, he cautioned, “Of course, none of these are true,” especially in the era 1845-1880. “Photography is infinitely mutable, and always was.”

In terms of honesty and accuracy, early medical photographs were far from ideal: French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne tried to use photographs to record facial expressions that he induced in his patients with electric current. But he had to do some serious tinkering with his process to get the photos he sought. In fact, Greenberg believes his photos, published in 1862, were re-enactments, taken after the actual experiments.

“[The field of] psychology has always been interested in the appearance of patients,” Greenberg noted. Physicians, he explained, felt it helped with diagnosis.

Greenberg showed how, despite its flaws, photography revolutionized medicine. With this technology, doctors such as Alfred Donne were able to make daguerreotypes of what he saw through his microscope, which artists later drew to illustrate medical texts.

“The greatest breakthrough was the ability to mass produce, from a negative, any number of reproductions that you needed,” he explained.

He ended with a quote from Tod Papageorge, an American art photographer who, since 1979, has taught photography at Yale: “Those early years were the time of the Miracle, when no one knew quite what to make of photography, but everyone knew it was astonishing.”

Astonishing, for sure. But the truth? Not so fast, Greenberg concluded.

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