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  • Author or Editor: Brandon Zimmerman x
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As a rite of passage, dissection was essential to the formation of a student’s medical identity at the turn of the 20th century. Dissection photography commemorated two key discernible elements related to the formative aspects of medical identity: they showed tangible proof of a student’s professional affiliation and confirmed the levels of psychological detachment necessary to participate in anatomical dissection. And yet, when discussing the entirety of dissection photography, one cannot overlook the genre’s glaring iconographic inconsistencies. This chapter proposes that the need of the American medical student to create divergently codified forms of dissection photographs did not originate purely from exploitative spectatorship. Rather, it evolved over time to confer identity by bearing witness to a rite of passage, as well as to become an initiation unto itself. Previously, a limited knowledge of the genre’s chronological, rather than typological, boundaries – in terms of quantities, cultural influence, and decades of operation – has prevented a comprehensive understanding that divergently themed images did not originate simultaneously. Nor did they stem from a single source with singular intent. Instead, dramatic shifts in the iconography of and intent behind dissection photography occurred years or even decades apart, built upon the foundational conventions, aesthetics, behaviors, and technologies of the past.

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Understanding why medical and dental students of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were seemingly impelled to create dissection photographs requires one to step outside all conceivable comfort zones and embrace a type of photography that exists in flagrant opposition to the ethics of the modern world. To fully comprehend the importance and influence of photography and dissection upon American students in the 1880s and 1890s, readers must spend some time in the 1860s and 1870s, the decades immediately preceding the genesis of dissection photography as a quantifiable genre. This chapter discusses that in these years leading up to the era of the dissection photograph, popular perceptions about death and photographs of the dead placed the camera and the cadaver along similar paths. Eventually, these symbiotic trajectories merged; commingling death and the photograph via a series of inseparable intellectual, literary, and aesthetic comparisons. The resultant cultural fusion spawned a new species of imagery, photographs of the deceased; a nebulously defined organism whose dual purpose was to memorialize mortality, while also bearing witness to death; true inglorious death.

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This chapter explores conceptual and theoretical applications of abjection toward the dissected cadaver, dissection photography’s most abject element throughout its 50-year evolution. Also examined is the cycle associated with the cadaver’s ambiguity as dual subject/object. Particular attention is shown to the direct correlation between its abject otherness and the transformative processes essential for its utilization by medical students for both anatomical dissection and, later, photographic commemoration. To the lay reader who has never dissected nor witnessed a dissection before, the concept of the abject and the abjectified body assists with coming to terms with the myriad attitudes and questionable behaviors students adopted during the era of the dissection photograph. Of note are the substantial shifts in student–cadaver posing conventions. These shifts rendered the dissected cadaver almost completely ambiguous; not only through the destruction of its structural unity and form, but the dissolution and derision of its personhood. The theoretical concept of the abject provides clarity and context to the underlying signifiers associated with dissection photography. It is an ontological lens through which readers may objectively interpret, re-examine, and reckon with the genre’s more transgressive traditions.

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What photograph carries more abject significance than an image that coexists in the interstices between social repugnance and a hallowed expression of the cooperative social experiences of legions of students? This chapter legitimizes dissection photography’s role as a pervasive photographic genre by positioning its existence within other forms of abject imagery. It also asks why the supergenre of medical photography, in all its varying forms, has subsisted almost exclusively outside the scope of photographic history’s authoritative canonical texts. While the constant fluidity of the genre’s dominant imagery seemed to confuse early photo historians in terms of defining the genre’s origin, such acts are in fact essential to the formation of a genre as we know it, such as the creation of distinct subgenres. In the case of dissection photography, once student amateur photographers had access to handheld cameras, the psychological turmoil of their initial encounter with the cadaver found tangible expression in the form of a distinct subgenre. Particular attention is paid to this phenomenon, specifically, the formation of the Student Dream subgenre and its relation to the psychosocial conditioning of American medical students.

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To comprehend dissection photography as an evolving genre, we must first and foremost stop looking at the genre’s raw elements, the typology of the dissecting room, as the sole means of grouping and thus defining dissection photography in total. While this structure is decidedly more palatable to a broad, non-medically inclined audience, it fails to position or contextualize these subjects and their influences from a technical or sociocultural standpoint. To illustrate this point, this chapter discusses grave robbing, and its relation to the origins of dissection photographs, and how systemic racism created a divergent iconography associated with Black student and physician identity. Particular attention is paid to medical schools in the American South and their attempts to prevent Black students from dissecting White bodies.

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Dissection was the principal authoritative procedure for members of the medical profession to measure, on physical and psychosocial levels, the affective bonds and formative boundaries of their identities, specifically, those of recent inductees. This chapter covers concepts related to medical conditioning in the form of clinical detachment and medical socialization through various hazing rituals involving the dissecting room. To this point, dissection photographs became an integral part of conditioning rituals. They served as a memento of an intensely formative time in students’ lives. But, more specifically, they evidenced, in an exacting manner, a singular recallable moment of student rebirth. This chapter also focuses on how the objectification or dehumanization of the dead body was essential for the cadaver’s utilization in the obtainment of medical knowledge. Of particular significance is how students formulated their new professional identities and adapted to their surroundings by using a litany of defensive techniques and conditioning through medical socialization. While the dissection photograph confirmed a new stage of professional affiliation for students, by literally fixing their identities to a tangible substrate, readers should note that their identities were not permanent. By their own admission, a student’s time in the dissecting room was transient.

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This chapter discusses the inclusion of women in dissection photographs, particularly those associated with the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, the nation’s first degree-granting medical school for women. By the time dissection photography became a ubiquitous tradition in 1900, it was not uncommon for women to study medicine, nor to see women populating dissection photographs; be they intermixed in crowds at coeducational schools or comprising the totality of dissectors within single-sex dissection rooms. However, as this chapter shows, despite the significant increase in their representative agency, women – unlike their male counterparts – were rarely photographed misbehaving or dehumanizing cadaveric remains due to harsher public scrutiny of their professional identities.

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This chapter examines the historiography of the scalpel within dissection photography. With the inherent ambiguity of its functionality – an implement used to cut into both living and dead bodies – the scalpel was an equal agent of violence and healing. This bifurcated utility often worked in tandem with and against its own historiography. Ultimately, strict industry-driven rules and progressive trends governing its inseparability with medical professionalism and identity caused the scalpel to become a prime target for farcical photographic subversion, with students using dissection photography as a variable, but highly controllable means to visually and viscerally transgress the blade’s proper historical, theoretical, moral, and technical function. Eventually, commemorative portraiture reflected the progressive hygienic trends of the industry, with prophylactic precautions, like the wearing of gloves, established as a new posing convention. However, within the first decade of the 20th century, once photography was adopted as the primary means of transgressing normative aspects of dissection culture, students sought to corrupt the authority, utility, and perceived safety of the scalpel by focusing on its abject qualities; specifically, becoming morally and physically impure through improper usage.

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Due to the limitations of the photographic medium and subsequent photographic printing, answering questions about the realities of cadaveric skin involve countless variables on both sides of the anatomic and photographic spectrum. Ultimately, the aesthetics of the photographed cadaver cannot be trusted. This chapter argues that throughout the defining era of dissection photography (1880–1930) the cadaver’s photographed skin and muscle contributed cooperative proof of its abject, ambiguous, and inassimilable nature. The author examines this assertion in detail, focusing on the disruptive uncertainties and inconsistencies of cadaveric skin, as shown throughout 20th-century amateur-made dissection photographs. Agents of disruption demonstrate the capacity to disturb reliable visual translations of the natural textures, color translations, and tonal values of dead flesh, and include, but are not limited to, common types of photographic image deterioration, the limitations of early 20th-century photographic technologies, poor lighting, as well as natural decomposition processes, and the eccentricities of period embalming techniques.

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Poor lighting affects the outcome of any photograph. In the case of a dissection photograph, it can also contribute to the ambiguous appearance of a cadaver’s skin and bones. This chapter discusses how the lighting and location of a school’s dissecting room influenced the quality of the photographs taken inside. Particular attention is paid to the differences between attic and basement dissecting rooms and the challenges of taking photographs in either space, especially those requiring magnesium flash. Also of note, is a case study focused on the environs associated with ‘Chris’ Baker, the African American janitor of the Medical College of Virginia who was also a prolific resurrectionist. This chapter discusses how racially motivated perceptions ‘othered’ Baker and his essential role in dissecting room culture. When coupled with the limitations of early 20th-century posing conventions, most left over from the antebellum era, Baker had to be segregated from students or dehumanized when posing for dissecting room portraits.

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