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^ A Note on Eric Avery's Work In the summer of 1978 Eric Avery finished a residency in psychiatry and came to the Perm State College of Medicine in Hershey to take up a two-month residency of a different — he would say "opposite" — sort. We in the Department of Humanities appointed him artist-in-residence, based on our admiration of his photographs, some of which we had seen during a previous visit in October 1977. We opened most of the doors in the medical center and invited him to point his cameras where he wished. The results are remarkable. I want briefly to describe them, and the later wood engravings, in the context of what Avery has said about his work during several recent conversations with me. I begin with the earlier work because much of Avery the printmaker is already there in the 1977-78 photographs. Three enduring characteristics of those photographs are espedally clear: first, Avery's astonishing ability to see in medical spaces and in the unself-consdous visual arrangements made by medical personnel meanings hidden from die rest of us; second, die ways in which his mind quite naturally moves toward die various startling, even shocking , borders between life and deatii; and third, the search for images to represent his deep compassion. (A subsequent trip inspired a valuable focus, but more of that later.) A few photos from die series depicting relationships between doctors and patients were taken in the neonatal unit. Two of them have been transformed into the first two engravings of the present group. Another place where Avery came alive diat summer was die anatomical pathology lab. I accompanied him to one autopsy, but I didn't see what he saw. The photographs later developed include an unusual "Still Life" —the shiny lungs, kidneys, adrenals, spleen, and liver of a newly dissected human body. Anodier image, which came to be known as "Death's Head," forces the viewer to look directiy down into die skull of a woman whose scalp * This set of prints and other works by Avery are available through the Mary Ryan Gallery, 452 Columbus Avenue, New York City, 10024. 212-799-2304. Literature and Medicine 5 (1986) 84-87 C 1986 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Joanne Trautmann Banks 85 has just been sliced back. The angle of Avery's vision reveals diat a grotesque , leering face was right diere all along in die cross section of the head. The connections between the values of Avery the photographer and Avery the engraver are unmistakable dius far. But one photographic series, collectively called "Hands Healing," provides a marked contrast to Avery's presently ambivalent attitude towards advanced medical techniques . First in black and white, and then closer, more intimatdy, in color, Avery respectfully follows an operation performed by a plastic surgeon as she replaces die severed hand of a young man.1 That was before die sea change. The last time I saw Eric Avery was a Sunday afternoon three or four years ago when I turned on my television set — inadvertently, I admit - to one of those attempts to demonstrate the plight of the people served by Christian missionaries. Amidst a throng of heartbreaking, swollen-bellied, and dying children in Somalia, diere was Eric, expressing his horror, but compassionately helping in every way that his physician's skills allowed. Now, with these four wood engravings, he uses his artist's skills to help. When Avery returned from his foreign sojourn, images of medical machinery and mechanical ediics jostled in his mind widi images of his innocent , Somalian children — representative, he has told me, of millions of children worldwide, whose medical needs are simple, so simple. They need hydration, vacdnation, and food. Widiout these items, which are taken for granted, of course, in America, they suffer and slowly die. Yet American children are not necessarily better off, for all the technology available to them. In his first image, the babies tumble from the mother's open legs onto die table where the machines are ready to monitor, and the physician, robed, his hands lifted ceremonially, is ready to witness. To Avery, I infer, the medical procedure is not...


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pp. 84-87
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