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Photography :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle


This page is intended to provide visual representations of hysteria for the reader. Imagine you are a Parisian citizen in the 1850’s who is a part of the new Boulevard Culture. You see and observe others around you, knowing full well they are doing the same to you. These pictures, when published, are quite shocking to you. They are hysterical women, and they should be kept within that crazy woman hospital, you think.

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Luys, “Emotions” induced by olfactory stimulation (1887)

Luys, "Emotions" induced by olfactory stimulation (1887)

Luys, “Emotions” induced by olfactory stimulation (1887)

The left column are images from Charcot’s Iconographie, real images of women in “hysterical fits” in the Salpetriere. The right column are my modern interpretations of these images. They are remade with the influence of modernity, making them quite a bit different from the ones on the left.

To begin, the overall image is different in the two sections. I found it quite difficult to make the pictures look like the 19th century versions, mainly because photography has evolved so much since then. I took the photos on an iPhone— the clarity, time it took to develop and accessibility of the photos was much easier. I was able to take them, directly put them on a computer, and then edit them to make them appear “older”. When taken in the 19th century, however, the images took a while to develop, and the patients had to hold their “poses” for quite some time.

In addition, I also found it difficult to make the lighting, costumes, and background as similar as possible to the originals. Clothing has changed so drastically in the last century, that it was difficult to find similar items to the women. Lighting was difficult because of how much photography has evolved. It is much easier now to use natural lighting, or the flash setting, so I did not have to set up an entirely staged backdrop in order to take my pictures. The same is true for the background–pictures can be edited so much now that it is not as necessary to stage a backdrop.

Finally, taking the pictures myself helped to make a stronger connection with the women in the hospital. Charcot made the women pose and act out their hysterical type–when it turns out on film, it is much more frightening than it is in person. The model for my pictures, my “hysterical patient”, looked quite different in real life and in the pictures. In person, she was an actress, someone who was playing an hysteric: on film, she is a woman suffering from hysteria, a victim of hysterical symptoms. And this is how hysteria became the spectacle that it did. Through images that were staged, posed and positioned that, in person, weren’t frightening, but were terrifying to the public once shown through film. Photography was a means of creating spectacle, whether it was voluntary or involuntary, that led to the mass hysteria of the period.

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