- Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography by R. B. Bontecou, and: Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America
Studies in American medical photography have typically viewed the field through two lenses: photography as a means of documenting surgery, treatment, and hospitals on the one hand, and the emergence of clinical subjects, often objectified by the camera’s gaze, on the other. These two books speak to and complicate such accounts. Burns makes us grapple with the individuality of each wounded soldier, even as a visual typology of injury emerges from the turn of the page. Sheehan argues that the influence of medical photography extended far beyond the hospital and was deeply implicated in broader cultural conceptions of photography as social medicine and portraiture as a form of “treatment” in the late nineteenth century.
Shooting Soldiers selects clinical images assembled by military surgeon Reed B. Bontecou. Burns, an ophthalmologist, has amassed one of the most important collections of medical photographs in private hands. Bontecou was either a prolific maker of photographs or an attentive commissioner of them (Burns does not say). Inscribed with a patient’s medical history, the images were made when Bontecou was surgeon in charge at Washington’s Harewood Hospital between 1863 and 1866. Bontecou cataloged the photographs in albums, arranging them by bodily location of the [End Page 456] wound and alphabetically. He worked closely with the Surgeon General’s Office to print and catalog the images; later he relied on photographs as part of his work as a pension examiner.
The photographs were originally intended to help improve medical care as part of the Army Medical Museum (AMM), founded by Surgeon General William A. Hammond in 1862 as a pathology archive and as a signature part of his attempts to modernize military medicine during the Civil War. The larger collection still exists and is housed at the National Museum of Medicine and Health. Some of these images also were used as the basis for engraved illustrations for The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1870–88), a massive study of the treatment of disease and wounds.
Here we see carte de visite portraits of soldiers, trousers rolled up and shirts unbuttoned to present their healed wounds to the camera, selected from a collection that numbers nearly a thousand images. Each soldier holds a chalked identification board marked with his name, regiment, company, and sometimes a hospital record number. Burns arranges the photographs by state and by “artistic merit” but, with the exception of one plate, does not present the albums as Bontecou arranged them (53). These images are hard to look at but should be seen; they are important for the history of Civil War medicine and military technology as well as its cultural and visual history. But the significance of the photographs is tempered by the lack of a scholarly stance toward the subject; no notes or bibliography accompanies the text.
Drawing on a familiar, if worn, trope in photographic history, Burns frames Bontecou’s work as both art and document. Bontecou “documented his patients in an artistic manner that has intrigued audiences from their inception” (5), and the images provide “visual evidence of the real war, the bottom line of the war as it affects individuals and families” (6) that are at once visual records of heroism. Yet this reading seems to overlook important dimensions of the images: even as they rely on the familiar carte de visite format, the audience for these photographs was other physicians. Their motivation was to catalog wounds and treatment; taken in a military hospital, they were executions of an order.
So it is hard to see what we should read in these images as art in the face of the bluntness with which they picture injury. There is trace evidence that whoever made these photographs knew...