Jules Bernard Luys – Felicitous Failures
Taking up the role of a guest blogger for a week, I decided not to write about artistic uses of photography, as seems to be the common practice here. Instead, I suggest to expand the framework of thinking about photography as an imaging technique used by specific agents within a specifically predefined contexts, with the aim of generating a certain effect or fulfilling a certain function. In this sense, my posts will not deal with artistic practices of producing images, which, generally speaking, could be defined as aiming at achieving a high level of aesthetic quality and a purposeful semantic ambiguity, in order to intentionally open up such images to multiple interpretations.
In the coming week, I will engage with both historical and contemporary scientific, or more precisely, medical images, under which I mean the kinds of visualisations, which are produced with a very specific purpose in mind. The role of such images is highly utilitarian and their intended interpretation usually already implicated within the context of their production. Such images are often produced as an apparently transparent representation of an objectively registered state of affairs.
However, instead of taking these images for granted, I will point to certain slippages in their applications or inherent structural instabilities, which, despite the efforts of their producers, turn these images into opaque objects. What I am interested in are scientific images which are less successful at fulfilling their primary utilitarian function and thus become objects without a fixed meaning, open to alternative interpretations.
One early practitioner of photography represents a rather poignant case in point of such a failed production of scientific images within the context of neurology. Jules Bernard Luys (1828–1897) was a celebrated French neurologist, who had made groundbreaking contributions to brain anatomy, before he published the first ever photographic atlas of the human nervous system in 1873.
Luys’ atlas was illustrated with seventy strikingly precise albumen prints of various sections of the human brain. All of the photographic images were accompanied by schematic drawings, which clarified the structures depicted in the photographs and offered assistance in reading them. Photography was still a very new medium at that point, and although it was embraced with enthusiasm in a number of scientific areas, brain anatomy proved to be a sort of a blind alley. Luys’ photographic atlas did not success in establishing photography as the preferred medium for representing cerebral structures. The beautiful, rather abstract photographic representations of the brain sections proved to be less legible and, therefore, less useful than the drawings.
The next photographic project taken up by Dr. Luys had a more theatrical flair to it. Influenced by his famous colleague Jean-Martin Charcot, Luys developed an interest in hysteria and its link to hypnotism. With his favourite highly suggestible hysterical patient “Esther”, he started conducting a series of questionable experiments. Having hypnotised “Esther”, Luys then showed her test tubes containing various substances (thyme, cognac, hashish, cologne, garlic, water…) and systematically photographed her “emotional” reactions. These ranged from outbreaks of laughter, over falling asleep or becoming mildly alarmed to experiencing extreme fright or going into ecstasy. The “mysterious” part of the experiment was the fact that all of these lavish reactions were apparently produced by the mere sight of the test tube, without directly exposing the hypnotised patient to any of these substances.
In 1887, Luys published a book about his hypnotic experiments illustrated by twenty-seven photographs of “Esther” and another female hysteric. He was confident that his experiments were generating new scientific knowledge regarding pathological emotional states and what he termed as “action of medication at a distance”. Unsurprisingly, the images, which were supposed to play an evidentiary role in his claims, failed to persuade the scientific community of his time. The sexually charged images of the two young women in mostly unpleasant states of extreme emotions, with an occasionally visible disembodied male hand holding a test tube to their faces, rather then generating new scientific insights about the nervous system, seem to be more indicative of the prescribed gender roles of the period and the repressed male phantasies.
Luys’ final project, conducted in 1897 shortly before his death, was an attempt to visualise the invisible with the aid of photography. His effluviographs represented an endeavour to produce images of the direct emanations of the “vital spirit”. By placing the fingers of his patients directly on the photographic plate submerged in a developer, Luys believed that the small halo-like irregularities visible around the imprints of the fingers represented a direct inscription of the otherwise invisible emanations of the cerebral energy. His interpretation, which veered towards the occult, proved wrong. Luys’ effluviograhs, although an epistemological failure, remain strikingly beautiful abstract traces of one man’s fingertips, still holding a metonymic connection to an anonymous life, which had ended a long time ago.
Taken as a singular example, Luys’ experiments and the scientifically intended application of photography may seem more eccentric that is actually the case. The entanglement of the “objective” science and what we would now term as pseudoscience was not an unusual phenomenon at the end of the 19th century, as a number of scientific disciplines that we now take were granted were still in their nascent form with not yet fully determined field of inquiry or methodology.
Yet, regardless of the state of the development within a field of investigation, errors and failures can never be fully excluded. And while they remain failures within one field, they can still be fruitful within another. Without much use as scientific images even during his own lifetime, Luys’ visualisations are nevertheless meaningful within the history of photography and visual studies.