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Medical Histories

Humans love to look at humans, particularly the broken ones. We crane our heads at car accidents, obsessively search for vicarious thrills on reality tv, stage freak shows, buy books about "modern primitives", and, in an especially crass gaze into the void, make a whole subgenre of films devoted to capturing the moment of death. The Mutter Museum, founded when Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter presented his unique collection of specimens to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1858, has long been a cult favorite for the pathologically curious. The collection contains antique medical training tools, wax models, preserved skeletons, a human horn and a giant colon stuffed with hay. For over ten years, Laura Lindgren has been inviting photographers to make fine medical art out of the collection, and publishing the photos in annual calendars. The discontinuation of the wall calendar provided the impetus for the traveling exhibit (San Francisco is the only stop on the West Coast).

In addition to a sampling of the fine art photos, there is a wall devoted to images from the museum's archives, thus creating a tension between the modern views on medicine and the original documents. While looking at these -often gruesome- images from the collection, the audience is forced to reckon with their own voyeurism. It's not a flattering impulse to admit.

Many of the photographers chose to focus on fetal images. The museum's collection probably has a vast catalogue of all things fetal, given that high infant mortality rates would make cadavers available and important to study. Two interesting takes on the fetal form were from Scott Lindgren - "Celphalothoracopagus" (1990) and "Instrument of Destruction" (1992). In the former, he puts a skeleton of fetal twins conjoined at the head and thorax at the center of the photo. Unlike many of the pictures featuring skeletons, the tone is warm, with an alabaster background and a clearly focused shot that invites more fascination than dread. "Instrument of Destruction", a fetal skeleton in background on the left with a comically menacing cranioclast, an instrument used to decapitate newborns, hovering in the foreground. Creepy and self-conscious, it is a way to poke fun at the audience, whose interest in the museum lies somewhere between academic interest and cheap thrills.

The most fascinating pictures, the ones I kept crossing the room to ogle, were the original prints from the Museum's collection. Touching, humorous, gross, heart-breaking - they are the queasy thrill of voyeurism. In particular, I was drawn to the photo of Chevallier, a 28 year-old woman with a form of nerve cancer that caused an excess of back skin. The folds of skin hung like drapes while she sat with her profile visible enough to see clean lines of nose and chin, suggesting a classically beautiful face. Some hand, possibly a nurse or a doctor, holds up a flap of bloated skin to the camera. Plunged into her world, with only a few lines beside the picture to give it a context, all I could do was stare. The note said she died nine days after the image was taken.

In a world filled with genetic engineering, modified fruit, animal cloning and other human attempts to control human biology, the Mutter Museum photographs remind us that before we can attempt to outwit our genes, we have to understand them. The range of photographs - from Max Aguilera-Hellweg's stately black-and-white prints to Wegman's whimsical use of a curved spine - show the complexity of our responses to medical history as well as the awe and repugnance that come with viewing the artistic representations of disease. Until the Museum opens an outpost on the West Coast, this exhibit is a fantastic primer.

On Display through September 6th
At SF Camerawork
1246 Folsom St.
(between 8th & 9th)
San Francisco, CA 94103
phone: 415.764.1001
hours:Tuesday - Saturday (12 noon - 5 pm)
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