Excerpt from Spectral Image

June 11, 2010

posted and written by Caroline Picard

Lately, I’ve been reading this book about the relationship between trauma and photography called Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, by Ulrich Baer. It’s a fascinating book and I wanted to post a section form the first chapter that deals specifically with hysteria and Charcot‘s series of diagnostic photos investigating hysteria. From what I gather, Charcot was one of the first doctors to take hysterical conditions seriously. (I’ve provided two different links about who he is). A major part of his investigation took place in a series of photographs that sought to categorize certain symptoms of hysteria, symptoms that the were induced by his peculiar use of the then relatively new technology, the camera. While Charcot is criticized for his misogynist approach (because of his controversial use of his patients–with whom he would regularly induce into catatonia, and then photograph their pliability where, like dolls, he would move their limbs and torso. While he was the first to investigate the hysterical condition in men, he did, for instance, photograph them). Nevertheless, Baer pushes the dialogue farther, examining the ways in which Charcot’s patients mimic the mechanism of the camera itself. It seemed like a wild premise at first, the the body of Charcot’s patient would mimic the apparatus of a camera, but there’s something amazing about it. In the first part of the chapter Baer suggests that the room in which the patient stands–an all dark room in which they sit along, until there is a springing and sudden flash of light from the camera, a flash of light which makes them catatonic (and thus pliable). Baer suggests that it is almost as if the patient is inside of the camera already, for her physical conditions as subject-being-photographed, perfectly parallel the conditions of subject-in-the-camera (i.e. the camera as a dark box in which the figure is frozen in time). This is a final section in that first chapter.


One of Charcot’s hysterical patients exhibited a symptom that does not categorize the process of photography but, rather, imitates the photographic apparatus itself. Instead of disclosing, like a human hieroglyph, the shared temporal structure of trauma and photography, her afflicted body mimics the camera’s operation. Hortense J., a sixteen-year-old seamstress, was sent to Charcot by another doctor as part of the era’s trafficking in “medically interesting” female patients. Hortense suffered from photophobia in the eye, a rare hypersensitivity to light accompanied by paralysis of the corresponding eyelid muscles. Her photophobia produced symptoms similar to those of flash-induced catalepsy: pliability of otherwise stiff body parts, paralysis, and eventual lethargy. Because she had never been hospitalized before and allegedly had never seen anyone with a similar symptom (blépharospasme malade), Charcot considered the symptom to be an “original”; he discussed it at length as a fascinating addition to the burgeoning symptomatology of hysteria. Hortense underwent extensive hypnotic treatment as well as the standard Salpetriere regime of hydrotherapy, electroshock, drug treatment, physical therapy, and the cuirasse–a frightful leather harness strapped to the patient with numerous buckles. The early hypnotic treatment revealed Hortense’s great “potential.”

We remark that the patient’s hypnotism is, so to speak, perfected: she presents already for some time now the lethargic and sleepwalking phases of great hypnosis. On December 13, she commenced to have some of the characteristics of the cataleptic phase. When, while she is in the lethargic state, her eyelids are held open, her bodily members will remain in the position in which one arranges them [cataleptic state]; but once one ceases to hold her eyelids open, they close by themselves and the patient returns to the lethargic state.

Soon, however, Charcot can report complete “success”: “Some days later, the patient present a very distinct cataleptic phase [la phase cataleptique bien nette]: when her eyelids are opened, they do not close again by themselves and the patient remains in all those position in which she is arranged.

The case proves germane not only for Charcot but also for my analysis, for Hortense’s symptoms imitate the photographic apparatus: with her light sensitivity, squinted eye, and catalepsy, her face mimicked in the camera and the cameraman. Augustine, too, once developed similar mimetic symptoms, suffering from tunnel vision to periodic loss of color differentiation that limited her visual perception to black and white. Such hysterical symptoms go beyond the allegorical images of flash-induced catalepsy; they suggest a more direct possibility of imitation than the complex simulation of photographic memory in cataleptic hysteria. Yet in spite of his anxious efforts to distinguish genuine suffering from malingering (la simulation), Charcot failed to recognize that the symptoms of catalepsy, photophobia, tunnel vision, and black-and-white perceptions corresponded to the characteristics of his photographic diagnostic apparatus.


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