Thesis Info

Thesis Title
Tanya Sheehan
Tanya Sheehan
2nd Author
3rd Author
Number of Pages
Brown University
Thesis Supervisor
K. Dian Kriz
Supervisor e-mail
K_Kriz AT
Other Supervisor(s)
Mary Ann Doane; Jennifer Tucker
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
History of Art and Architecture
Languages Familiar to Author
English, French, German
URL where full thesis can be found
portrait photography, medicine, cultural authority
Abstract: 200-500 words
This dissertation investigates the cultural roots of an analogical relationship between commercial portrait photography and medicine in nineteenth-century America. Using the methodological tools of visual, cultural, and science studies, I examine professional photographers’ reliance upon medical models to describe their operations in the portrait studio. Through a series of historical case studies, I show that photographers appropriated medical discourse in an effort to strengthen their professional legitimacy. What was at stake in this effort, however, far exceeded the establishment of commercial photography as one respected profession among many. Representations of photography as medicine, I argue, shaped the institutional and epistemological character of portrait photography by defining photographers’ field of operations as the physical and social health of the middle class. In a period when the social body appeared particularly vulnerable, commercial photographers attempted to construct a cultural belief in photography’s rehabilitative powers and authority over the body. My study of photography as medicine focuses on the cultural context of Philadelphia, a city which witnessed the professional advancement of both technologies in the nineteenth century. I begin by discussing the kind of social status and institutional structures which the photographic profession sought to borrow from medical models. Chapter 2 examines representations of portrait photography as a diagnostic way of seeing and a normalization of the body analogous to operative medicine. I go on to consider in chapter 3 how photographic literature ironically transformed the serious health risks associated with photographic chemistry into an occasion for praising the unparalleled healing powers of photographers, their materials, and the chemical environment of the photographic laboratory. In chapter 4 I show that portrait photography’s reliance on light lent the medium further potential as a panacea. Like popular phototherapies, photography promised to rehabilitate the social identities of studio patrons by removing bodily deviations from an ideal of whiteness and bourgeois respectability. I conclude with a brief discussion of how my historical project intersects with debates concerning body-imaging techniques in contemporary American medicine and popular digital culture.