Flesh made light: investigating X-ray films

Still from Barbara Hammer's film, Sanctus, which shows an X-ray image of a head and torso in profile
Still from Barbara Hammer’s Sanctus, courtesy of the Medical Film Symposium

I’m flying back from a trip to the George Eastman House (in Rochester, New York), where I did a couple days of archival research. I thought I’d write a bit about what I was doing there and what I found, in the hope that capturing the experience here will help me organize my thoughts about it later.

I was interested in a physician-filmmaker named James Sibley Watson, Jr., who made a number of striking cinefluorographic (X-ray) films. I’ve been hoping that Watson will be the basis of a fourth chapter of my book, Depth Perception, which is about medical filmmaking. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of what, together, we think constitutes a body: mind, anatomy, disease, and, with the addition of this fourth chapter, skin. My argument is that it’s surprisingly difficult to make a medicalized body cohere on film. It takes tons of editing tricks, special effects, and dedicated equipment. In fact, it’s so difficult, I argue, that we should pause to consider whether the medicalized body exists at all.

I first encountered Watson’s films in a 2010 presentation by the filmmaker Barbara Hammer, whose experimental short film Sanctus is constructed from Watson’s X-ray films. I was struck by the haunting quality of Watson’s work, as well as some other facts Hammer related about the physician. The only son of a wealthy Rochester family, Watson graduated from medical school in 1921, but maintained a keen interest in modernist literature and film. With a partner, he edited and published The Dial, the modernist literary magazine, publishing work by E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and many others. He also made two well-regarded experimental films: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1932). In the mid-1940s, however, Watson turned his attention to radiology, joining the faculty of the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and filming (according the Eastman House’s finding aid) more than 10,000 cinefluorographic exams.

Sanctus and Other Films by barbarahammer.com from barbara hammer on Vimeo.

I was intrigued by the possible connections between modernism and the strange, haunting X-ray films that Hammer showed. What was the line that, in Watson’s mind, drew together these different parts of his career? I also felt that X-ray films highlight an interesting complexity of thinking about the body: its permeability and porosity, its tendency both to escape its bounds and to absorb external matter, the difficulty of knowing where the body (where life?) begin and end. I noticed that Watson was particularly interested in the processes of coughing, swallowing, and digestion, and it occurred to me that these are all mechanisms by which the body assimilates and excretes matter. Could there be something there, I wondered?

It’s very hard to see Watson’s X-ray films, largely, I imagine, because not too many people are interested in them. The Eastman House has seven, which I got to see on a flatbed. The available films are quite short: 20 seconds to one-and-a-half minutes. They’re ghostly little films; everything is serpentine (spine, intestines — even, in one film, a real snake) and pulsates in a distinctly animal way.

Still from Jean Epstein’s Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

I thought of Jean Epstein, whose better-known version of The Fall of the House of Usher was released the same year as Watson’s own. Epstein’s Fall, too, pulses with weird energy. Everything is fecund, dripping, and unwholesome; at one point, we see two frogs copulating. Epstein lingers on close-ups of faces, a testament to his theory of photogenie, which held that the camera could reveal things invisible to the naked eye, particularly qualities that hid beneath the surface. Epstein believed that a close-up of the human face could show truths that otherwise lurked underneath the skin, perhaps by revealing the movements of tiny muscles, perhaps through a process altogether more mystical.

Could there be some connection between Epstein’s photogenie and Watson’s cinefluorography? I’m not sure. Perhaps they’re two different approaches to getting at the truth of our bodies. Perhaps it means something that both Epstein and Watson were trained as physicians. Perhaps it means something that both were drawn to The Fall of the House of Usher.

Watson’s papers are extensive but not particularly revealing, at least not for someone interested in his cinefluorographic work. He spent a good 20 years of his career on these films, and became quite well known for his advances in this area, but he wrote very little about it. I found a few technical descriptions of cameras and the like, which are useful but don’t shed much light on his motivations and larger interests. I was also able to pin down important dates and facts about Watson’s life, which, again, are useful, but don’t provide any major insight. It might have helped to have more time in the archive, but the archivist’s schedule and mine made this difficult.

A note on workflow: I was surprised to discover when I arrived at the archive that cameras were not permitted. I should’ve asked, but it’s so rare to encounter this restriction these days. Instead, I took notes and transcribed — I hate ordering photocopies, which is such a laborious and expensive process. Each time I encountered a document of interest, I created a record for it in Zotero and entered transcriptions and observations in the Notes field. I also kept a running Word document with brief notes on which documents contained useful information. The process was slower than I usually like, but I should have no trouble citing documents later.

As with any archive trip, I spent a good deal of time wondering about who this person might be, what he was like, whether we’d like each other if we met. Did he love his wife? His parents? Was he basically a good person? None of these things, of course, are any of my business, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering.

In the end, I’m not sure I understand Watson’s work or motivations well enough to write extensively about him. But I intend to read more about cinefluorography and Watson’s milieu, and perhaps this will lead to more material to work with.

6 thoughts on “Flesh made light: investigating X-ray films

  1. Miriam, this is so intriguing (and your book sounds amazing). It blows my mind that this Watson was the “Sibley Watson” (as Robin Schulze identifies him) of the Dial. As a Moore scholar, I tend to associate The Dial with the perhaps more active partner, Scofield Thayer. Watson tends to be effaced more in histories of modernism; one thing that’s clear, though, is that, like Thayer, he was absolutely loaded, and both of them were determined to run The Dial according to their own taste. Given the degree of trust they placed in Moore, who took over as editor-in-chief in 1926, I think of them as having had excellent taste.

    Moore describes Watson, upon meeting him in 1920, as “quiet, not very starchy as to appearance but […] considered very brilliant” (Schulze 431). A little of Watson’s correspondence with Moore appears in Schulze’s wonderful essay on Moore’s relationship with the Dial (433-5). These letters are in the Moore archive at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.

    The Scofield Thayer papers, which include his correspondence with Watson, are here at the Beinecke. From the Beinecke finding aid: “Watson’s correspondence with [Dial managing editor Gilbert] Seldes is particularly detailed, providing insight into the relations between Watson and his partner Thayer.” It appears that Watson also published his own writing in The Dial, which is doubtless available at UCLA.

    So those are some factz. But the bigger questions—about modernism, photogénie, and the body’s absorption and secretion (compounded by the subtle absorbtion of radiation that makes these images possible)—I’d very much want to spend more time with.

    Moore, Marianne. Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924. Ed. Robin G. Schulze. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002.

  2. That is amazing, Natalia! You are awesome. I am … not a literature scholar, as you can tell. I was like, The Dial who? To the library! Thanks a million.

  3. Incidentally, Watson’s wife, Hildegarde Lasell Watson, was best friends with Marianne Moore, and even semi-self-published a book, The Edge of the Woods, about their friendship. Their apparently extensive correspondence is at the University of Rochester Library.

  4. Miriam, I have done a lot of research on James Sibley Watson’s mother, Emily Sibley Watson, who founded the art museum in Rochester where I work (Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester). I’d enjoy communicating with you if you are interested or have any questions.

    Margie Searl

  5. Very Interesting! I’m glad someone is working on Watson’s later films. I’ve been researching the music for both Usher and Lot, and I still have hopes that there may be parts of the “Dinner Party” in the uncatalogued material Watson donated to the Eastman House.

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