Photographs Thinking Through Storr and Richter in the 19th century
Wilsey, Hospitals, photographs and Cushing – history, memory and fragmentations (some oblique thoughts that seem theoretically related to the projects of Storr and Richter)
Throughout the past year, I have been thinking through a number of 19th century photographs of trauma and devastation: pictures imbued with some kind of collective cultural mourning; pictures saturated with unknowable loss and melancholic remembrance; pictures obscured by the larger projects of History—a History often driven by contextual detail, clean narrative legibility, and practical social consequences. Although this is an utterly simplified—and probably base—way of identifying the larger framework from where my thinking emerges, it is an outline nonetheless.
Robert Storr’s October, and maybe even more specifically, his more recent short monograph, September, inspired me to share some of my own ideas on images and memory. A few thoughts:
In my ongoing independent project/research I’m interested in the relationship—absent dialogues, thick tensions, and formal motifs—between a variety of 19th century American photographs. I want to put the images beside each other and read them both independently and together in order to create some kind of pastiche assemblage; a novel encounter with the past; a palpable meditation on memory, history and longing. A brief side story and some historic background of the mid-nineteenth century.
In the aftermath of the war, Surgeon General Doctor Reed Bontecou organized his collection of medical photographs into album books and finely cultivated compendiums of medical knowledge: his massive collection of anatomical specimens and portrait photography was the single largest contribution to the Army Medical Museum. Brazer Wilsey’s portrait is one of the many sitting soldiers captured under the lens of Doctor Bontecou. His face is recognizable and identifiable. This portrait humbly reveals the wounded body of Sergeant Brazer Wilsey; the photograph is a blank tableau: objectified and silent, mute and anonymous. Strangely, the surgeon’s absent hands, too, are readily apparent the conspicuous annotation of a drawn in red arrow.
The annotated arrow in the Wilsey photograph (Figure 1, portrait of the soldier above) is one of many such arrows in the project. The arrow functions not only as a visual analogue and formal connection between the pictures; rather, the arrow is also acts as a potent metaphor of historical wounds, melancholic drift, and the howling blankness of the past. The arrow imperceptible darts through time, simultaneously disrupting space and tracing an object: it punctures the picture, it needles together the threads of the romantic and historical imagination in this work.
A story of the photograph (Figure 1):
Forlorn and isolated in thought, Sergeant Brazer Wilsey sits with head bowed and brows furrowed. Wilsey’s crimpled neck, his fallen posture and his dejected facial expression each accentuate the photograph’s sense of loss. His eyes are soft. His contemplative downward gaze accentuates the elegiac mood, disassociated personhood, and the interiority of the photograph. This melancholic longing protracts time like a silent gesture of inhalation; the historical past is spatially contained in an inward asphyxiating cry.
The Wilsey portrait illuminates the frailty of the human condition: the fallibility of the human body, the vulnerability to physical pain, and the exasperated sigh of a devastated spirit are each on display. As a medical specimen, the voice of Brazer Wilsey is silent; he has been deflated and suspended indefinitely within the hospital walls. The portrait is a cold closed mouth: his breath suffocates in isolated strangeness. The void of the blank hospital walls—white, empty and pale—threaten to further constrict his motionless body.His portrait portrays an objectified other self; the ghost of Wilsey levitates under the anatomical weight of a scarred shoulder bearing the traces of the past. Longing for bodily reconstruction, the chilled unutterability of trauma freezes even the silent echoes of the photograph.
The Wilsey photograph is also unabashedly personalized. How so? Directly above Wilsey’s heart is a drawn-in red arrow—an annotation, an additive mark, perhaps a kind of scar. The line traces the ballistic trajectory of an imagined bullet; the strange inscription pierces the surface of Wilsey’s flattened corpse-like body. This piercing wound is not one of Eros and love; rather instead this is a different kind of Cupid arrow: Cupid’s sling of arrows now only a sling supporting a severed left arm; his wounds of love now palpable in wounds of flesh. This conspicuously scribed arrow—notated with Dr. Bontecou’s red ink and imbued with his own artistic sensibilities—is a written inscription, a different and subtle kind of touch illuminating the scars of the past.