What follows is a letter to Rémi Faucheux, editor of the photo-book, Clinic, published by Images En Manoeuvres Éditions (ISBN: 978-2-8499-5130-9). Rémi Faucheux co-founded – with Matthieu Charon – the independent publishing house RVB Books in 2005, dedicated to promoting the work of contemporary photographers. RVB Books has released a number of award winning books, and in 2013, Rémi and Matthieu plan to open an exhibition space to serve the artists they represent.
I am sharing this letter to celebrate Rémi and Matthieu's remarkable vision and to excite the attention their work deserves. Clinic has parallel text in both French and English with writing contributed by Michel Poivert and Stéphane Velut.
Rémi, bien le salut à vous – hello again!
What a marvelous book you have sent to me! For some reason I was under the impression – embarassingly surmised from an advertisement you emailed to me last year – that "Clinic" was formatted as a less costly (royal) octavo paperback. Instead, I am delighted and surprised to hold in my hands a rich and worthy example of the book arts! I loved everything about the book and it deserves a following here in New York. I hope your presentation at P.S.-1 last month brought you some collectors.*
By showing you the dusty old books I trotted out from my small library of 19th century medical books, you were exposed to my bias for historical medical black and white images. I prefer these over the jucier color photographs that illustrate modern medical textbooks, however, I loved the colorful archival images you selected for "Clinic," all of them rendered as Autochromes Lumière, and all exquisite – even the close-up pictures of tooth decay! I wish I could have been at the table with you and Matthieu when you were sorting through the hundreds of medical photos and picking out the ones you wanted to include in "Clinic." Hah, I could have recommended something! This part of the book is an appendix, but unlike the vestigiality of the human organ, the section is titled "Useful Photography" and your archive functions as context for the work of the contemporary photographers you are representing. I can vouch for your statement, "If you factor in the nostalgic effect time has on photography, we begin to find photographs of festuring wounds and unsettling machinery strangely beautiful." Is it because the camera is an instrument of nature, that it can produce the traces of existential time? Edgar Allen Poe might have answered, rhetorically, "How is a camera like a clock!"
I was especially moved by the sensitivity of Albrecht Kunkel's portraits of prima gravida, they are by far my favorite images in the book. He had the idea to assemble a collection of models of the psyche, representing the psychic transformation from girlhood to motherhood. Has anyone else commented on the facial expressions of these women, of their similarity to Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna? And can there be found, here, an explanation for the Madonna's iconic smile – a thinly drawn commissure of the lips caused by the buccinators of pregnancy? If Dr. Max Thorek were still alive, he would be looking to include their expressions in an enlarged edition of his book, "The face in health and disease," one of my favorite modern textbooks (all black and white plates). Kunkel's portrait collection is fascinating, but it is also creepy, curious, like a shadow box of pinned bugs or a tray of glass eyes. I am grateful to these women for delivering themselves up to the pins of this project.
Geoffroy de Boismenu's work is very close to, synchronistic with, the work of Dr. Max Aguilera-Hellweg presented in a monograph titled, "The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery." Both photographers photograph the sacred spaces created by the suffering of the clinical subject. I find the synchronicity compelling and it makes me value the work of these two artists more, not less, simply because it is wonderful evidence of a telegraphic framing of reality. It requires a mental adjustment to the idea that "cultures" of freelance microbes are in complete control of reality. I prefer this micro explanation than the macro one provided in the book, that Boismenu "frames the frame." This suggests emotional and ironic distance coming from both ends of the camera. Laboratory evidence mounts on the power of microbes to effect human behavior and this fact is probably why the brightest minds are abandoning postmodernism and taking up biosemiotics.
I read with interest that Eric Baudelaire, who responds with an artist's eye to the mechanical theater of kidney failure, is himself the grandson of a distinguished nephrologist, Gabriel Richet. I do not know this man, but I do know the great 19th century surgeon, Louis-Dominique-Alfred Richet (1816-1891) and his son, the physiologist Dr. Charles-Robert Richet (1850-1935). Is he related to them as well? Hygieia enthralls the sons and daughters of physicians with a bright red moral thread that gets broken when they renounce medicine and become artists. For them, the stakes are higher, and they have to work harder to redeem themselves when choosing to dabble in paint and canvas instead of using their gifts to heal the sick. I found Eric's photographs to be the toughest images in "Clinic," expecially the portrait of the young patient on page 144, shot from above. Like a medical instrument, his camera violates her privacy and then disseminates her suffering to the library shelves of public memory.
Architectural landscapes have their afficionados and traditions. For years I have been looking for a nice copy of Billings, "Description of the Johns Hopkins Hospital" with Gutekunst's large format plates. All of the shots of interior hospital and morgue spaces in "Clinic" are unspeakably haunting, haunted. When I saw the photograph of the museum operating room diorama** on page 125, I was floored. This was a difficult shot to compose and I appreciate how Ville Lenkkari approaches his subjects voyeuristically, from informal angles. It is as though his camera itself were a living, fleshed-out creature, unsteady with what it is looking at. If any photograph in the book "frames the frame" it would be this one because it is a key for what you, as the art editor, are trying to achieve, and I applaud you for including it – any other editor would have culled it. What should have been a photograph with the weakest subject became, instead, the strongest in its re-representation of the corridors of medicine as something otherworldly.
Thanks again, Rémi and Matthieu, for sending me your book. I will never again enter a hospital or clinic without feeling like a sprocketed automaton in an anatomical diorama.
* The Seventh Annual NY Art Book Fair, organized by Printed Matter, took place on September 28-30, 2012, at MoMA P.S. 1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island. City, NY.
** Musée de l’Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris, 47, quai de la Tournelle, Paris, France.