Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Aesthetic Traces in Unlikely Places:
Re-visioning the Freak in 19th-Century American Photography

Sheila Moeschen, Ph.D.
Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Theatre/Drama
Northwestern University
Evanston, IL
E-mail: s-moeschen@northwestern.edu


Historically conceived as a method of truthfully depicting reality, photography serves a critical function in disseminating knowledge and constructing representations about people, places, and objects. In this essay, I examine the historical role photography has played in generating cultural conceptions of the freak in 19th-century America. By drawing a proximity between medical photographs and sideshow cartes de visites of the physically anomalous, I demonstrate a shared aesthetic tradition between science and the arts that destabilizes elements of power, authority, and control typically associated with the western medical/scientific community. My work demystifies the apparent contradiction between subjectivity and objectivity inherent in early photographic practices to reveal a strategic methodology: a way of playing with the politics of photographic representation to generate meanings for bodies that resist empirical explanation. Here, photography's structures of power and knowledge that imbricate the freak are made transparent, challenging the medium's claims to truth and "reality" that inform its critical status in contemporary American culture.

Keywords: Photography, freaks, medical science, Charcot, sideshow

In an address to the New York Neurological Society in 1893, Dr. M. Allen Starr memorialized the French physician Jean-Marie Charcot whose work at the La Salpetriere in Paris revolutionized the treatment and diagnosis of the physically and mentally deviant. Specifically, Charcot's interest in photographic technology and its capacity to visibly disclose the body's "truths" distinguished his work at the Salpetriere from other physicians. Starr (1893) recounts spending sessions with fellow students in Charcot's "eye room" where he collaborated with photographers "to secure just the picture he wanted of the [patient's] deformity" (p. 436). The material gathered in these tutorials became part of Charcot's well-known public clinics held at the hospital each Tuesday. During these sessions physicians and students participated as spectators in Charcot's medical theatre. "The room," Starr states, "was arranged for a stage and footlights, and tiers of seats arose from the front level" (p. 436). Charcot would proceed to display patients before the audience of students, diagnosing his subjects' various ailments and anomalies:

[Charcot] usually showed a number [of patients] at once, either to display variations of one disease, or to draw contrasts with other diseases. [Individuals] were placed before the footlights, and sometimes when a particular feature had to be demonstrated, a calcium light was turned on the patient, whose figure, the chief point of light in the darkness, could always be perfectly seen by all (p. 436).

Throughout the exhibition Charcot provided continuous commentary, describing the patient's case and drawing attention to the individual's physical idiosyncrasies. Hand illustrated or photographic slides projected through a "magic lantern" followed these presentations, graphically reifying the patient's abnormality. Starr mused, "it has been said that the whole clinic was arranged for theatrical effect; it left on the mind of the student a series of mental pictures of patients and of lesions which no amount of private study could possibly produce" (p. 436).

The amalgamation of science and theatre at the La Salpetriere mimics the performances offered in the 19th-century American sideshow. Charcot, fulfilling the barker role, parades the "freakish" subject before the audience, employing dramatic and rhetorical conventions to explicate the source of exoticness. Just as the freak performer sold souvenir carte de visites bearing their likeness, Charcot leaves his spectators with photographic images designed to, as Starr notes, indefinitely sustain the visual encounter with Otherness. Arguably, these two phenomena diverge in that one exhibits human and natural oddities for entertainment and commodity, while the other displays the aberrant for scientific purposes. Yet the similarities in these two seemingly disparate performance modes warrant further attention. Charcot's appropriation of theatrical conventions into a realm designated as empirical and objective belies an interest in aesthetically coding the body as Other, a practice conventionally reserved for the artistic rather than the scientific. Charcot's work illuminates a cultural fascination over ways of seeing and claiming knowledge about what Rosemarie Garland Thompson (1997) terms the "extraordinary body" (p. 5). Here, the ideological and historical separation between objectivity/subjectivity, truth/artifice that accompanies visual representations of the body is undermined and the disciplinary boundaries that conventionally shore up these distinctions begin to shift.

Charcot's interest in using photography to study his patients reflects a common trend among 19th-century physicians. Scientists in both Britain and America seized on photography for diagnostic purposes as early as 1865. Many physicians invested in the photograph's apparent capacity to create a representation perceived as irrefutably "faithful" to the original subject. Significantly, one such photograph from this time period appearing in the British medical journal The Lancet, portrays a man with two sets of genitalia (Kemp, 1997, p.125). The abnormal or freakish specimen provoked particular attraction for physicians attempting to disclose the mysteries of bodies that resisted scientific classification. Martin Kemp (1997) attests to the appeal of photographing medical deformities as "the easiest to document photographically," adding that these conditions also "attracted the kind of public fascination traditionally evoked by freaks and monsters" (p. 146). Rachel Adams (2001) concurrently acknowledges this medical lineage in her examination of the freak's cultural significance in America. Photography played an integral role in the sideshow industry; the souvenir cartes de visite validated the performer's uniqueness as a living curiosity, allowed the spectator to fetishistically revisit the sideshow encounter, and contributed to the sideshow's consumer machine. Adams argues that sideshow photography framed the performer as memorable, rarified, or exotic. "Clinical photographs," writes Adams, "depict the same subjects as case studies intended for professional eyes only." She adds, "Whereas the freak portrait used props and setting to heighten the body's sensational features, the medical photograph stripped the body of clothing and adornment to provide an unencumbered view of its abnormality" (pp. 117-118). Sensation and curiosity characterized freak portraiture while clinical observation remained the hallmark of the medical photograph (Adams, 2001, p. 118). Elsewhere, historian Chris Amirault (1993/94) notes a similar tension between "the presence of the artist/photographer who has carefully arranged the model" and the scientific discourse that frames the subject "meant to reveal the objective truth of the patient" in medical photography (p. 54). For Amirault this results in an irresolvable paradox, which breaks down to a fundamental and seemingly inexplicable contestation of meaning (p. 55).

However, these scholars eschew the influence of other parties equally invested in the use of photography such as portrait photographers, theatre managers, and sideshow performers, thus relegating the contradictions between subjective and objective representational practices evidenced in photography to curious historical anomalies. Moreover, this popularly accepted delineation perpetuates an historical blindness that obscures an understanding of medical and sideshow photography as existing along a continuum, as part of a shared aesthetic tradition between science and the arts. I propose to restore this relationship by examining the association between 19th-century medical photographs and sideshow cartes de visites featuring depictions of the "extraordinary body" or freak. This work demystifies the apparent contradiction between subjectivity and objectivity inherent in early photographic practices to reveal a strategic methodology: a way of playing with the politics of photographic representation to generate meanings for bodies that resist empirical explanation. Here, photography's structures of power and knowledge that imbricate the freak are made transparent, challenging the medium's claims to truth and "reality" that inform its critical status in contemporary American culture.

The introduction of photography in America marked the beginning of a cultural shift toward a new valuation of visual experience. For example, Karen Haltunen (1982) documents the ways in which 19th-century citizens manipulated the signs of clothing, accessory, and gesture in an effort to visually code the body in accord with social standards of both sincerity and hypocrisy. Individuals relied upon visual signifiers to negotiate a world growing increasingly fractured and incomprehensible due to population influx, geographical expansion, and the influences of capitalism. Photography emerged as a significant component within 19th-century visual culture and social practices. Unlike painting or even theatre, which purported to "mirror" nature, photography (re)presented objects with an immediacy that testified to the exciting and disturbing verisimilitude of this new visual medium. Alan Trachtenberg (1989) succinctly characterizes the cultural attitude toward photography in the 1840s: "Pictures seemed both reassuringly familiar and disconcertingly new, recognizable as pictures, but with a difference" (p. 3). Trachtenburg continues, noting, "the dialectic of strange and familiar, of astonishment mingling with recognition, points to the predicament into which the medium was born, a predicament of comprehension" (p. 3). This element of the uncanny marked photography as a representational form that produced images considered as metonyms for the "real" in all their inherent contradictions. The daguerreotype, a precursor to the paper-based photograph, significantly contributed to the aura of strangeness and familiarity associated with the photograph. Created from a copper plate coated with highly polished silver, the daguerreotype resembled a mirror upon which the photographic image was inscribed. As the spectator gazed at the image appearing on the plate, he or she was met with one's own ghosted reflection in the glassy surface. The daguerreotype literalized the mirror metaphor due to the way it superimposed the "real" image of the spectator over the "removed from real" likeness of the object.

Captured and configured within the camera's technological gaze, people necessarily reevaluated perceptions of themselves and each other. Portraiture became a popular practice and means of self-expression for middle-class and wealthy Americans. Photographers specializing in portraiture capitalized on the transition from copper plates to the cheaper and more easily reproduced cartes de visite. Introduced in the 1850s, the cartes de visites utilized one plate to manufacture between 6 and 12 albumen-silver prints, typically printed on heavy card stock measuring 2 _ x 3 _ inches each (Pultz, 1995, p. 17). Under these new conditions, photographic portraits became cheap, accessible, and particularly appealing to an emerging middle-class constituency. Galleries or studios designed with the specific intent of showcasing portraiture fueled the public's interest in gazing upon "real life" depictions of the wealthy and historical displayed amongst the "average" or respectable.

Mathew Brady, an entrepreneurial force in the burgeoning photographic industry, opened one of several renowned galleries in New York City in 1853. Brady's "Daguerrean Miniature Gallery" transformed ordinary display practices into an artfully produced visual and sensual experience. Patrons passed through elegant cut-glass doors into the "reception" room that housed Brady's immense photographic collection. Satin and gold paper adorned the exposed areas of the walls, expensive laced curtains hung on the windows, and enormous frescoes covered the ceilings. Unlike natural history or curiosity museums trafficking in science or shock, Brady's gallery offered a "theater of desire" (Trachtenburg, 1989, p. 41). Within the sumptuous and carefully orchestrated gallery interior, patrons participated in uninhibited and fetishized gazing. Their consumptive "looking" evinced a commingling of desire and longing for the intrinsic qualities of character, poise, power, or charm inscribed upon the body and made intelligible through the politics of portraiture representation. Portrait galleries not only constituted a leisure activity for Americans, these venues also instructed visitors how to recognize and decode the "classic" body. Because Brady's and other portrait galleries specialized in showcasing "respectable" portraits, the photographic gallery can also be understood as a site that reproduced and reinforced similar class, race, and physical hierarchies that structured the public sphere. Visitors sustained practices of encoding and decoding the self through the new set of visual politics simplified through photography and made appealing and readily available within the lush and lavish confines of the gallery space.

This implicit nod to the aesthetic production involved in portraiture serves as a crucial challenge to the qualities of truth and authenticity associated with photography. Audrey Linkman's (1993) analysis of portraiture photography offers useful insight into the construction of these images. According to Linkman, the most effective portraits "conveyed and obeyed a more profound and significant imperative, to trace the mind's impression on every face" (p.35). Photographers orchestrated the aesthetics of the portrait by advising their subjects to adopt serious expressions and to avoid smiling in order to convey virtues such as good breeding, self-control, and respectability (Linkman, 1993, p. 43). Photographers also developed posing or arrangement strategies designed to showcase the subject's most attractive or favorable features. Portrait photographers avoided working with those considered defective or deformed as these physical traits, according to conventional wisdom, represented outward signifiers of the moral or ethical depravity that lurked within one's soul.

The same desire to manifest the qualities of the interior through the exterior that comprised portraiture's allure and fascination were the same properties that attracted the medical community to photography. This moment connotes a significant epistemological shift in medical discourse that Michel Foucault identifies in Birth of a Clinic (1973) as an attempt to localize pathology by mapping the body through the magnification and isolation of anatomy. Foucault maintained that the medical community positioned itself as the purveyors of a "pure Gaze," an empirically informed system with claims to mastery over truth and knowledge (Foucault, 1973, p.114). As such, many believed that medical perception must be "structured as a look through 'a magnifying glass, which, when applied to different parts of an object, makes one notice other parts that one would not otherwise perceive,' thus initiating the endless task of understanding the individual" (p. 15). Though Foucault elides any explicit discussion of photography, his statement evokes the medium as an extension of the medical gaze. The empirical "eye" of the magnifying glass or, in this case, camera's lens functions to conflate the subject with her pathology, inscribing her within a medical discourse that gains its rhetorical and ideological power vis-a-vie the "reality" of the photograph–a "reality" generated through the efforts of the photographer/physician.

Historians commonly recognize the photograph as inextricable from truth telling; in its pre-digitized state, photography existed synonymously with the ability to document, irrefutably prove, or bear witness to an event. Historians Daniel Fox and Christopher Lawrence (1988) discuss photography as a means of documentation as well as self-expression for physicians. As such, the photograph constituted a language that accurately communicated "people's perceptions of themselves and their world" (p. 8). Thus, photography not only documented subjects, but its visual and aesthetic properties signified meaning that exceeded the significance of the image itself. The construction of philosophical concepts such as morality, beauty, and evil become validated through the photograph, which functions as visual testimony to the values and cultural ideals of a social system. As a result, the photograph, endowed with political and ideological importance, participates in a culture or institution's dissemination of knowledge and power.

Similarly, Alan Sekula (1975) points out that photography remains inseparable from various cultural or theoretical discourses that combine to produce meaning. However, Sekula qualifies his assessment by noting that the "the image can have no intrinsic or universal meaning other than what we ascribe to it" (p. 37). For Sekula the process of generating meaning results in the distinction of two systems: Photographs signify as either empirical documentation or aesthetic fetish objects. "The photograph," Sekula argues, "is imagined to have, context depending, a power that is primarily affective or a power that is primarily informative" (p. 39). By maintaining this binary, historians produce a way of "reading" photographs that allow for facile and clean categorization, which subsequently aids in reinforcing disciplinary and political boundaries. Yet evidence persists that discloses an inherent instability in this formulation and indicates the locus of photographic meaning and significance as shifting and provisional. Portrait photography proved the importance of photography as a device that communicated and reinforced various important qualities associated with class and character. As several studies point out, other institutions such as the criminal justice system and the medical profession utilized photography as a crucial methodological tool that ultimately accrued social and political relevance. In diagnosing, and thus hailing, the physically or socially deviant subject, these institutions relied on photography to reinforce their positions of authority and power, controlling perceptions of these subjects by shaping the production of photographic meaning.

Prior to the advent of photography, physicians and scientists visualized organic phenomena and its anatomical structures through the sketches, woodcuts, and engravings that appeared in scientific atlases. Beginning as early as the 16th century, atlases reproduced "standardized" representations of subjects and objects. Images formed the atlas' core imperative, and as a result supplemented theories or hypothesis with "truthful" depiction. The 19th-century cultural preoccupation with faithfully and accurately presenting "nature" changed the way scientists and physicians approached their subjects. Physicians strived to render the mechanisms of the body in greater degrees of verisimilitude, struggling against "imposing their hopes, expectations, generalizations, aesthetics, even ordinary language on the image of nature" (Daston & Galison, 1992, p. 81). In an effort to elide the subjective presence of the scientist/artist or image-maker, the medical community turned their attention toward the objective possibilities offered in the photographic apparatus.

The benefits of the photograph seemed innumerous. What illustrators captured in two- dimensional sketches or even detailed cross sections, photography rendered in graphic, three-dimensional detail. Physicians could study specimens from multiple angles without risking the distortion or inaccurate perspective associated with graphic illustrations. Another advantage to photography related to diagnosis and treatment; new visual representations of the body and its pathology enabled physicians to practice medicine in a more efficient manner that was ultimately less costly to the patient's life and well-being. Writing about its utility in 1879, a staff photographer for Bellevue Hospital noted that many surgeons requesting photographs of patients inevitably avoided "mistakes and errors...brought to their notice through the means of photography' " ("Medical Photography," 1879, p. 5). Most importantly, photographs excised superfluous detail and subjective excess that plagued graphic illustrations. Atlas makers, for example, eventually excised woodcuts from their works because they believed this earlier representational mode left "entirely too much to the discretion of the wood-engraver" (Daston &Galison, p. 101). The camera brought the subject along with all its phenomenology into proximity with the viewer and did so in a way that "promised to overcome all the problems of subjective errors which had traditionally arisen from medical artists' fallible perceptions and personal styles" (Kemp, p. 120).

Despite efforts to obscure the subjective proclivities of the image-maker or physician, an aesthetic sensibility similar to the one exhibited by the portrait photographer manifested itself in medical photographs from 1840 until nearly the turn of the century. Amirault directly attributes the aesthetic properties of early medical photography to the influence of portraiture. By playing with pose and display, Amirault suggests, these photographs earned contentious characterizations as visually provocative yet medically objective (p. 57). An article published in 1886 in the periodical Medical News underscores the photographer/physician's role in producing a desired rather than entirely empirical representation. Dr. George A. Piersol (1886) provides a detailed discussion of the most favorable methods and techniques in photographing specimens, human patients, and microscopic phenomena. With regards to documenting the human subject, Piersol advises on the kind of lighting (natural if possible) and suggests posing the subject against a simplistic background engineered to illuminate the patient in as fullest detail possible (p. 697). Piersol's mandates indicate a preoccupation with presentation viewed as intrinsic to issuing a "true and faithful record" of the medicalized subject. Unwilling or unable to completely entrust in the photograph's inherent empiricism, physicians employed subjective operations to encode their subjects, especially the pathologically anomalous, within distinctive ethical and cultural discourses.

Thus, many physicians expressed a concern over the use and effects of photography in clinical practice, arguing that photographs risked conveying a sense of ambiguity: were these images meant for scientific purposes or fetishized consumption? (Fox & Lawrence, p. 26). As if to counter detractors within their community, physicians continued to emphasize the authenticity of photographs used in their scientific studies. An advertisement for a gynecological text entitled Principles and Practice of Obstetrics (1866) publicized the book's "one-hundred and fifty-nine figures from original photographs," testifying to their "correctness and accuracy" ("Advertisement," 1866, p. 575). In addition, the advertisement pointed out that the photographs' "beauty as pictures" enhanced rather than diminished the book's utility (p. 575). Regardless of these and similar claims, the persistence of aesthetic qualities that transformed the photographed patient to a portraiture subject undermined the medical profession's authority. The physician's "calculated and narrow" medical gaze became destabilized by the intrusion of a subjective aesthetic conventionally attributed to portraiture (Foucault, p. 89). Moreover, this perceived ambivalence surrounding the medical image implicitly conferred agency upon the observer rather than the physician to decipher its hidden meanings. As such, the medical community reasserted its superiority over the body's unknowable terrain by using the photograph to mediate the spectator's gaze, directing its focus to the site of abnormality in a way designed to convey unmistakable significance. How did medical practitioners account for subjective or humanistic intrusion in their prized realm of photographic objectivity? What did this unresolved tension mean for the most widely photographed medical subjects in the 19th century: those with unusual anatomies, the defective, the disabled, and the freak?

Visual culture reserves a particular type of interest in the freak, the genetic or manufactured figure of hybridity personified. Often resistant to physical, racial, and social categorization, freaks exists in a perpetually liminal state, neither in nor out of the status quo. As part of the 19th-century sideshow, freaks and their managers depended upon America's burgeoning ocular-centrism, a growing fascination with and economic investment in visual consumption. Until the 1840s, most curiosities or wonders on display consisted mainly of "a hodgepodge of exhibits including paintings, stuffed animals, live animals, wax figures, mechanical devices, light shows, and artifacts brought back by sailors and explorers" (Bogdan, 1988, p. 29). Human exhibits, initially appearing prior to this period sporadically at fairs or carnivals, gradually made the transition to more organized and institutional settings such as the dime museum. Sideshow scholar Robert Bogdan (1988) attributes the success and proliferation of human exhibition in America to P.T. Barnum. His American Museum, established in 1840, became an enormously successful enterprise, bringing prominence to the freak show and revolutionizing the popular entertainment industry (p. 10).

Sideshows granted a new kind of visibility to a range of exotic and strange types: the congenitally disabled, racialized, savage Other, and those who artfully contrived their own type of freakery in the form of tattoos, piercings, or prosthetics. It logically follows that these subjects gained attention from the institutions of popular culture as well as from the intellectually elite scientific/medical community. Both enterprises sought ways to "reveal" or display the "extraordinary body" before the public, both claimed to have knowledge about these bodies, and both employed specific devices or strategies in order to render this knowledge transparent. For instance, many managers relied on the physical and visual incongruity between "giants" and "dwarfs" or "midgets" to generate a sense of awe and fascination. At other times the performer appeared as an "exotic" foreign subject or "aggrandized: endowed...with status enhancing characteristics" (Bodgan, p. 97). These presentational strategies informed sideshow performances, providing part of the show's source of pleasure and intelligibility. Souvenir cartes de visite augmented these fantastic exhibitions operating to visually and ideologically sustain the cultural work of the sideshow outside the venue. Bogdan describes the process of sideshow photography and some of the underlying decisions used to create a composite image of the freak:

They posed in front of one of various painted backdrops depicting scenes that ranged from jungle terrain to Victorian parlors. Props were selected, costumes worn, and the pose struck–all to reflect the image that the manager and the subject wanted to promote. some exhibits were presented in an exotic mode, others in a way that aggrandized their status. Dwarfs were photographed in oversized chairs to appear smaller than life, and giants were shot in scaled-down chairs to appear larger. Fat people's garments were stuffed with rags to add to their size. In addition, negatives were doctored, with, for example, additional hair added to exhibits whose abundance of hair was their oddity (p.13).

Photography renders the freak as "realer than real," or even more actualized than in the moment of performance, reifying the photograph's claims to legitimacy. Furthermore, by obtaining a portable photograph of the freak; spectators indulged their desire to gaze endlessly, turning the freak into a fetishized object. Like early medical photographs of the pathologically deviant body, the sideshow photograph existed as irrefutable proof that the strange and wondrous circulated among the general public. Photography in this instance also worked to manage or contain the deviant body through the medium, but also through the explicit frame of performance, entertainment. The freak became less threatening confined by the photographic frame and mediated by the spectator's fetishized gaze, which possibly accounts for one reason early medical photography employed similar strategies to display and capture the abnormal or freak body.

A Performative Trace

Contrary to historical beliefs, the photograph cannot exist as a "pure" artifact. Rather, it subsists as a socially, politically, historically, and materially generated product that accrues significance as part of various "discursive systems" (Tagg, 1988, p. 4). Due to its status as a physically manufactured visual object, the photograph carries with it an "index," a "causative link between the pre-photographic referent and the [image itself] (Tagg, p. 3). In other words, photographs always exhibit the residual, or "trace" of the subjective process responsible for its germination. Contemporary art historian and cultural theorist Rosalind Krauss (1978) outlines the concept of the photographic trace as the principle that dislodges photography from the realm of ephemera to reinstate a critical understanding of its materiality. Krauss argues that photography contains a "physical graft...a trace or signifying mark that bears a connection to the thing it represents by having been caused, physically, by its referent" (p. 34). The trace bleeds through the image, implicating the image-maker in shaping photographic meaning. Both medical and sideshow photography exhibit what I characterize as a "performative trace" due to the way it borrows on theatrical conventions to frame photographic subjects within implicit "as if" scenarios characteristic of the theatrical.

This performative trace becomes particularly evident and complex in the juxtaposition of sideshow and medical photographs. The figure of the hermaphrodite, for instance, appeared in numerous medical sources as well as in representations circulating in popular culture throughout the 19th century. In her work Sexual Visions (1989), feminist scholar Ludmilla Jordanova explicates the ways in which gendered bodies are encoded in medical representations to signify within discourses of desire and power. The cultural anxiety over maintaining political and material distinctions between male/female, public/private exists as the impetus behind practices designed to regulate and control the body (p. 138). The hermaphrodite explicitly challenges these delineations, and as a result, becomes an important figure in scientific study. In most cases the potential threat posed by the hermaphrodite remains obscured until disclosed by the camera's probing gaze. One photograph of an unidentified hermaphrodite taken in 1885 and compiled as part of American physician Stanley Burns' private archives, reveals the subject in a frontal pose, naked except for a pair of garters, with one hand resting on the back of a drawing room chair. Though the domestic setting as well as the subject's stance mimic a depiction of naturalness, her pose functions contrarily and calls attention to the manipulations or direction of the photographer/physician. Sekula (1986) suggests that the photograph, by virtue of its verisimilitude, authorized various ways of looking at subjects, especially those coded as physically deviant. When viewing the Other, Sekula contends, photography helped define both a "generalized look" to establish typology and a more critical type of gaze that registered the subject's "social pathology" (p. 7). This image warrants a similarly bifurcated look. Displayed in front of the camera as a scientific object, the body of the hermaphrodite is configured in such a way to promote clinical viewing. However, the design of the pose exploits the hermaphrodite's "truth" as pathological reality inscribed within a politics of display that authorizes a sexualized and eroticized gaze. The subject's stockings, her state of partial undress, and her domestic props offering a competing set of signifiers that evoke a performative trace, which unites this photograph with similarly styled photographs from the American sideshow.

This becomes explicit when compared with a photograph taken three years later of Annie Jones, a bearded woman whose physicality also transgresses gender and sexual boundaries. The bearded woman constituted a popular sideshow attraction and remains a contemporary part of the sideshow mythology, such as in the work of New York performance artist Jennifer Miller, a self-proclaimed "woman with a beard." Bogdan notes that in typical photographs of the bearded woman, the subject appears "striking feminine poses in elegant surroundings, wearing fashionable dresses and with their hair done in the latest style" (p.224). Though Jones' genitalia remains obscured, her long hair and bearded face (i.e. the secondary sex characteristics partly responsible for coding Jones in terms of masculinity) constitute the focus of the shot; Jones appears in front of a gilded mirror, half-turned to meet the camera/spectator's gaze. At the same time, Jones' elaborate Victorian dress and long hair, like the hermaphrodite's breasts and stockings, code her as feminine. The domestic setting, again reflective of the hermaphrodite's surroundings, gestures toward "normalcy" associated with the private sphere, thus promoting an imagined intimacy with the bearer of the gaze. In both sets of photographs the deviant body is configured along tenuous lines of desire/knowledge, male/female, and reality/artifice. Moreover, the performative trace authorizes the play of gazes that make these readings available.

In a corollary to the "exotic" savage showcased on sideshow stages, physicians similarly expressed interest in documenting the medical practices of foreign cultures. These photographs belie an institutional desire to render the "savage" body visible and ultimately anesthetize its threatening presence. The mid- to late 19th-century exploration of non-Western locations gave rise to the institutionalization of anthropology: a relatively new social science designed to document knowledge about unknown cultures and individuals. Adams notes that the institutional culture brought about by anthropology as well as science and medicine made it possible for sideshow managers to exhibit the corporeal freak alongside the "ethnographic freak," or "wild man" (p. 26). This representational practice capitalized on the public's fascination for physical deviance, especially those considered inferior due to their status as foreigners. Illustrations of "savage" cultures in medical photographs seemed to perpetuate the same kind of fascination and anxiety for the medical community, exacerbated by the photographic depictions of "wild men" practicing "primitive" medicine.

Photographs such as the ones taken of an Alaskan Shaman named Dr. Pete in the Burns collection show the doctor supposedly performing healing and exorcism rituals. The "savage" accrues significance through visual codes that heighten his racial and cultural atlerity. The performative trace announces itself in the spatial perspective that suggests a two-dimensional backdrop or studio wall behind Dr. Pete, kneeling over his "patient," and in the arrangement of fur pelts that carpet the floor or "ground." Dr. Pete's traditional costume consists of an elaborate tunic complete with a cloak and hat made from animal skin and adorned with animal bones. One photograph depicts the Shaman standing over a kneeling male subject, the man's hand bound behind his back. Dr. Pete's body is turned toward the camera; he loosely holds the cord that binds his patient with one hand and in the other grasps a large, sharp wooden hook or what might be perceived as a "primitive" medical instrument. The combination of a deliberately suggested pose, the explicit incorporation of props, and the attention to Dr. Pete's intricate costume illuminates the subjective influence of the image-maker. It is additionally significant that each photograph exhibits the Shaman performing a medicinal ritual. Typical portrayals of "savage" bodies function to code the subject in terms of "monstrous deviance" (Adams, p. 164). Dr. Pete represents a "monstrous deviance" of another order: the human body at the mercy of a foreign epistemology. Moreover, the performative trace endows a sense of timelessness upon the photographic subjects, thus casting the "wild man" as a persistent and ever present threat to the dominant American culture.

The imagined danger that the wild man poses is similarly foreground and played out within the sideshow's theatrical arena. Many cartes de visites of the sideshow savage evidence uncanny resemblance to the "authentic" Alaskan Shaman Dr. Pete. These photographs often showcased the performer's exoticized body through hyper-ornamentation. Subjects were outfitted with large, ornate headdresses and "native" clothing such as grass skirts, tunics, and loincloths. Many wore necklaces from animal bone, shells, or wood, which called attention to their bare chest or soldiers. Props such as spears, menacing-looking knives, wooden instruments, or archery bows accompanied the visual representation of the savage, heightening the subject's status as Other while simultaneously affording material proof of the individual's cultural veracity. These photographs demonstrate a convergence between the objective and the performative, illuminating the potential social and biological threat contained by both the exhibition of the ethnographic freak and its iteration as part of a material artifact, the photograph. Whether authentic or artfully manufactured, the "savage" becomes manageable as a photographic subject.

However, the performative trace that emerges in both the photographs of the "real" Shaman and the representations of theatricalized sideshow wild men is responsible for laying bare the process of assigning cultural and ideological value to these figures. The creation of an alternate frame around these subjects that explicitly signals the perceptual and cognitive apparatuses ascribed to performance, enables the photographer/physician to cultivate the play of meaning that reduces the wild man to a fantasized and fetishized character, conferring agency upon the spectator to revise and re-inscribe these representations with significance.

By virtue of its connotations with the stage, the performative trace fosters an atmosphere of instability in these photographs. But rather than understanding this contestation as disruptive, it is more useful to conceive of the performative trace as a strategy, as a method used by both medical practitioners and sideshow photographers to contain and control the meanings generated by these unruly bodies. In the case of the medical community, invoking or imprinting the artifice of performance upon the medicalized body allowed physicians to employ mechanisms of popular entertainment (the sideshow) to disarm the extraordinary body, re-inscribing these figures within discourses of fantasy and play. Yet this strategic move also permitted medical practitioners to take credit for divulging and/or authorizing the pathological "truth" of these very real subjects. The performative trace belies the validity of an empirical, medical gaze and yet this gaze depends upon a level of the artificial to assert its authority and power as a system of knowledge.

Jean Baptista, a Portuguese man born photographed with "a parasitic maldeveloped twin projecting from his lower pelvic area," (Burns, 1998, note #31) constitutes a particularly compelling illustration of the way the performative trace operates as a representational methodology. Baptista's photograph, taken in 1867, bears similarities to that of the hermaphrodite. His body is positioned to confront the camera's gaze with one leg propped on an ornate ottoman, thus exposing the source of his anomaly. The photographer's choice to costume Baptista with a long, dark cape and Oriental-looking skullcap shapes the viewer's understanding of this subject as exotic and wondrous. Without the performative trace, Baptista remains an inexplicable, and potentially (sexually) dangerous individual, thereby undermining the medical profession's capacity to uncover, explain, and anesthetize the problematic body.

The photograph of sideshow performer, Pirami and Sami the "Hindoo Enigma" bears an uncanny resemblance to Baptista. Though more than 30 years separates Pirami and Sami and Baptista, the resemblance in costuming, props, and poses suggests the effects of the performative trace contributed to establishing a standard of representational and viewing practices. Pirami strikes an affronting pose, turning his body to showcase his conjoined twin Sami who protrudes from Pirami's torso. Pirami wears a skull-cap identical to Baptisa's and his body is nearly bear except for a pair of silk pants. The iteration of visual politics in the photograph of Pirami and Sami constitutes an iconography of physical difference and exotic Otherness that cannot be attributed to a particular historical or geographical location. Instead, the two photographs share the effects of a cultural and artistic system that, in spite of claims to authority and control, function to produce a text inherent with instabilities.

By the turn of the 20th century, physicians expunged any kind of artistic aesthetic from their photographs. Clinical photographs began to resemble portraiture stripped of its subjective qualities: Medical photographers often relegated their focus to the specific body part, wound, or anomaly. In other instances, full-length shots featured the subject's exposed body, lacking any "costuming" against a black or white background. Despite efforts to present a "faithful" record of the deviant body, physicians cannot fully divorce themselves from the photograph's messy materiality. Pultz makes the case that the body displayed "in its purely material physicality gains power of its own" (p. 14). While this logic may apply to both those considered "normal" and freakish, photographs of the physically deviant acquire signifying power through a process predicated on the aesthetic mechanisms that make the body's "pure materiality" apparent. This understanding, in turn, becomes reconfigured through the spectator's gaze, which may oscillate between modes of understanding that range from the scientific to the subjective. As these different sets of photographs make clear, any time a body enters into the camera's frame, it becomes destabilized, subjected to various "conditions that constrain and support its meaning" (Sekula, 1975, p. 37).

The performative trace becomes another presentational "mode" employed, ironically in the case of the medical profession, to disarm these unusual bodies, endowing them with a quality of the ephemeral that ultimately promotes uncritical fascination; it promotes a kind of fetishistic voyeurism and illicit titillation. The popular historical belief that the sideshow portrait invokes "curiosity" while the clinical photograph reflects a purely objective gaze loses validity under closer scrutiny. Instead, the two traditions form a reciprocal relationship that illuminates their representational and political imbrications. The historical persistence to delineate between a medical and artistic "aesthetic" reveals a disconcerting bias towards privileging the power and credibility of the empirical realm over the artistic. Moreover, by maintaining an awareness of the trace, the photograph becomes a fluid text and the viewer retains agency as a thinking subject, affecting a critical stance toward the production and significance of photographic meaning both in its historical and current, political context.


Adams, R. (2001). Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Advertisement for the Principles and Practice of Obstetrics. (1866). American Journal of Medical Sciences. p.575.

Amirault, C. (1993/94). Posing the Subject of Early Medical Photography. Discourse, 16(2), 51-76.

Bogdan, R. (1988). Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burns, S. (1998). A Morning's Work: Medical Photographs from the Burns Archive and Collection, 1843-1939. Sante Fe: Twin Palms.

Daston, L., Galison, P. (1992) The Image of Objectivity. Representations, 40, 81-128.

Foucault, M. (1973). Birth of a Clinic (A.M. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Random House.

Fox, D., Lawrence, C. (1988). Photographing Medicine: Images and Power in Britain and America since 1840. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Garland-Thomson, R. (1997). Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP.

Halttunen, K. (1982). Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture In America, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale UP.

Jordanova, L. (1989). Medical Images of the Female Body. In L. Jordanova (Ed.), Sexual Visions: Images of Gender and Science (pp.134-62). Madison: Wisconsin Press.

Kemp, M (1997). A Perfect and Faithful Record: Mind and Body in Medical Photography Before 1900. In A. Thomas (Ed.), Beauty of Another Order (pp. 120-49). New Haven: Yale UP.

Krauss, R. (1989). Photography's Discursive Spaces. In R. Bolton (Ed.), The Contest of Meaning (pp.287-303). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Krauss R. (1978). Tracing Nadar. October, 5, pp. 29-47, 34.

Linkman, A. (1993). The Victorians: Photographic Portraits. New York: Taeris Parke.

Medical Photography. (1879, July 5). Scientific American, p.5.

Pathological Society of Philadelphia. (1886, June 19). Medical News, p.697.

Pultz, J. (1995). Photography and the Body. London: Union House.

Sekula, A. (1975). On the Invention of Photographic Meaning. Art Forum, Jan., 36-46.

Sekula, A. (1986). The Body and the Archive. October, 39, 3-62.

Starr, A. (1893). Memorial of Professor Jean-Marie Charcot. Medical News, Oct., 433-38.

Tagg, J. (1993). The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Trachtenburg, A. (1989). Reading American Photographs: Images as History. New York: Hill & Wang.

Trachtenburg, A. (1991). Photography: The Emergency of a Keyword. In M. Sandweiss (Ed.), Photography in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc.