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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Flea Market Photobooks - Clinical Photography - A Kodak Data Book - Book Review by Annebella Pollen. Posted: Wed 10 Jul 2024.

A Kodak Data Book
by Eastman Kodak
Eastman Kodak: New York, 1972
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

Separated from its original purpose, in a British twenty-first century charity shop, the 1972 American guide for the practising or aspiring medical photographer is unsettling. With detailed depictions on every double-page spread of wounds and skin conditions in adults and children, the viewer looks deep into the ears and mouths of patients, although rarely into their eyes.

Clinical photography, as the book explains, is a rewarding potential career direction for a skilled photographic practitioner; professionally-produced photographs are needed for a range of purposes, from photographs of nursing care and medical apparatus for institutional promotion, through to record photographs for patient case histories and pathological symptoms for teaching diagnosis. It is the latter with which the book is principally concerned, with guidance given on the technical production of requisite images, including matters of hygiene and safety – blood and other fluids spattered onto photographic lamps may cause explosions, it is noted – but also on etiquette for the clinical photographer’s interactions with patients, where "kindly impersonality" is encouraged.

Kodak’s Data Books ran to some 600 titles; they aimed to provide "up-to-date technical information for many fields of photography" at modest prices of mostly one to two dollars. Related volumes included Medical Infrared Photography and Photography of Gross Specimens. Marked "For Professional Use Only", Clinical Photography was, however, not sold through medical or educational settings but through photographic retailers. A technical glossary of medical terms shows the specialist knowledge that an entry-level practitioner would need to acquire to demonstrate knowledge of the field. A sophisticated knowledge of cameras and related apparatus is assumed.

Some photographic guidance is very similar to advice given to aspiring professionals more broadly in the period, for example, on arranging and lighting a studio. Notably, as the clinical photographer’s subject is usually an undressed patient, guidance on contours and "rounded subjects" uses female nudes as studies. The author advises, however, that the clinical camera operator, always assumed to be male, "will not find his subjects glamorous". There must be no embarrassment shown in the face of undress – or, indeed, squeamishness at the "grimness" of advanced conditions – yet clothing should not be included. Its presence is "distracting... careless-looking and unprofessional". Scientific studies must, of course, not contain "any hint that the patient does something indecorous by disrobing". Full body exposure has a clear logic for many medical conditions but the demonstration throughout the book of differential shading and pictorial perspective using the naked breasts of young women appears highly selective. The regular depiction of nude children is also awkward to view outside the context for which the book was intended.

None of the models in the book are named; neither is the book’s author. This distancing reiterates professional expectations of scientific objectivity. Matters of privacy and of patient permission are discussed in technical and ethical terms; release forms must be obtained and patients’ names must be protected to prevent "the embarrassment of recognition". Techniques are tested for concealing identities, including blocking out patients’ eyes. This can be done in postproduction by applying masking tape to the transparency; the ideal result is a black rectangle. Artists’ white circular "lift-off" spots may be used but this produces "a disconcerting startled-owl effect". A further suggestion, involving putting the patient in a "ballroom mask" before the camera is rejected as "somewhat droll": the effect is redolent of "Marie Antoinette on her way to the shower".

Art historian Christine Slobogin has analysed the hundred-year old practice of eye excision from medical photographs and notes that while it was intended to anonymise, its effect, at a distance, may also dehumanise. It also serves to privilege the vision of the clinician over that of the patient. Finally, as the viewer of a decontextualised photobook seen outside of its medical context, I note my own peculiar position of power. I look at sitters who cannot return my gaze; their eyes are removed from the encounter. Identities are rightly concealed in the pages of Kodak’s Clinical Photographs but its cover comprises nine rectangular photographs featuring only eyes, as if reinstating those removed by black boxes. Ostensibly a demonstration of how retinal observation can be recorded by a camera, eight pairs of eyes follow the radial directions of a compass, looking North, South, East and West. In the central image, across a four-decade divide, the patient looks back.

Other articles in the ‘Flea Market Photobooks’ series:

Other articles by Annebella Pollen:

Other articles on photography from the ‘Medical’ category ▸