Walter Freeman’s photographic forebears

Before-and-after photographs of a craniectomy patient
Surgical before-and-after photographs, like this set from 1906, emerged in the late nineteenth century.

Walter Freeman, the psychiatrist who popularized lobotomy, called photography his “magnificent obsession.” There’s no doubt that Freeman loved to shock, and his lobotomy photographs and films were part of Freeman’s arsenal of attention-getters.

But Freeman was also part of a long tradition of looking at a patient’s face and body in order to deduce the contents of her mind. So, in a way, he’s not as eccentric as his obsession might make him seem.

Continue reading “Walter Freeman’s photographic forebears”

Writing about lobotomy photographs

Pages from Walter Freeman's Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders
Pages 418 and 419 from Psychosurgery

It often seems to me that writing history is an exercise in hubris. I never felt that more than when trying to write about Walter Freeman’s photographs of the people he lobotomized.

These are really difficult photographs: difficult to see, difficult to analyze, and difficult to talk about. Lobotomy has become a kind of joke (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me!”), and yet, here you are, faced with real people caught in a terrible situation. How do you talk about them without reducing them to elements in an argument?

I was reminded of how tough this was when Katherine Wells, a producer at NPR’s Science Friday, contacted me to ask about doing a feature for Science Friday’s Science and the Arts website about the lobotomy photographs. You can see the result here.

Continue reading “Writing about lobotomy photographs”

Only fair!

Here’s a curiosity I can’t resist sharing: the first National Science Fair in 1950 had a girls’ division and a boys’ division.

Photo of the first National Science Fair, 1950
Taken from "First National Science Fair," Science News Letter, May 27, 1950: 326

The internet worked again!

I was thinking about my last post, in which I said my experience with The Temple of Moloch was my first encounter with Internet-ty Scholarly Synergy. I remembered, though, that this is actually untrue. Back when I worked at the Museum of the Moving Image, I had an awesome and totally nerdy online encounter with a patron about the Museum’s model of a spacecraft from the film 2010.

The Museum had an alert set up so that we’d know if anyone mentioned MMI in a Flickr caption. Someone did, Flickr user beamjockey (Bill Higgins), who posted a photo of the spacecraft along with a caption questioning the Museum’s identification of it as the ship Discovery. Concerned that the Museum was propagating false information, I emailed Bill to get specifics so I could correct the model’s label.

Bill Higgins turned out to be a scientist at Fermilab and an all-around great guy, and he called on his scientist friends to help us identify the model. I helped by watching 2010. After much debate, we decided that MMI’s label was indeed technically accurate, although it showed only a portion of the craft in question.

I was nerdily delighted by the whole thing.

You can read a wonderful (to me) transcript of the whole episode here. And here are some more pictures of the part of Discovery that sparked the Great Debate.

As film studies goes digital

Cans o Film, by Atomic Jeep
"Cans o Film," by Atomic Jeep

I don’t think it’s any secret (among those who care about such things) that the Film Studies program at Yale is at something of a crossroads. Film studies as a discipline has been increasingly turning into media studies, and Yale’s program, like a lot of programs, is having to decide how much it wants to participate in that shift. It’s been fascinating to be in the middle of this. There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate, but what I’ve really enjoyed is the fact that it hasn’t gotten personal, at least as far as I can tell; it’s a genuine intellectual debate about where film studies should go.

Where do I stand? Well, I’ll say this: film studies has given me a lot. Sometimes I’ll emerge from a discussion of Hitchcock or Truffaut marveling that I’ll never think about those filmmakers the same way again. And then I’ll go home and sit slack-jawed in front of my computer for hours on end, like I do every day. When I remember to come up for air, it’ll occur to me what a shame it is that we can’t turn that arsenal of analysis toward the technologies that define a large portion of my life.

I had to fill out an application recently that asked for a 600-word essay on how new technology has affected my discipline. Once I started writing, I was surprised by how much I had to say. So here’s what I wrote about film studies.

Continue reading “As film studies goes digital”

When in doubt, ask a real person

"Archivists are Hot," by katherine of chicago. And they are!
"Archivists are Hot," by katherine of chicago. And they are!

Web-based research is great and all, but sometimes nothing beats talking to a real person. One of my favorite tricks when researching an obscure topic (like a certain kind of microphone) is to pick up the phone and call someone. In my experience, if you get in touch with the right person, he or she will be really excited to talk with someone who’s genuinely interested in the topic. And even though I’m shy and sometimes have trouble with the phone, I always end up really glad I made the effort to talk instead of email.

That’s why I love this resource: the Directory of Corporate Archivists in the United States and Canada. What could be more fun than geeking out on the phone with just the right person?