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.

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