La Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière, and its successor, La Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière, were both annual publications, founded by the French physician Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893), director of the Hôpital de La Salpêtrière in Paris, and founder of the first cathedra of Neurology. Built on an old military gun-powder warehouse built by Louis XIV, the institution was founded as a shelter for the poor and homeless, later became a residence for women, a prison for prostitutes and finally ended up being used as a mental health hospital with more than 10000 patients between interns and outpatients.
Supported by funds from the French government and with 32 volumes published between 1875 and 1918, the Iconographie, of a medical nature, was used primarily as a means of disseminating the research of Charcot and his team in the study of hysteria and incorporated abundant photographic material to document the many clinical cases. Every Tuesday, open sessions given by Charcot were held at La Salpêtrière, with the participation of doctors, intellectuals and artists, where all this photographic material certainly played a predominant role.
These volumes include a collection of more than 4000 photographs that sought to document not only pathological and anatomical aspects of the patients, but also questions related to expressiveness or the representation of passions such as ecstasy, call, loving supplication, etc., which seems to suggest that Charcot’s motivations could go beyond the strict scope of medicine, and move in a field close to artistic experimentation. The publication also included illustrations and lithographs signed by Paul Richer, as well as works of art from the painting on which retrospective diagnoses were made. The term iconography is related to the intention of cataloguing and obtaining an objective and systematic representation of the pathologies observed, but it also suggests a visual typology that transcends the personal tragedy of the patients in a kind of mystical search for their auras, if not in a mere exhibition of the cabinet of the horrors of the Salpêtrière.
The Salpêtrière’s photography department was headed by Albert Londe, a specialist in the field of medical photography and inventor of a 9-lens camera that he used to document issues related to anatomy and movement.
In 2013, the Spanish artist Javier Viver presented his book “Révélations. Iconographie de la Salpêtrière” based on these photographic archives, which won several awards for its careful editing. In Viver’s book, the photographs are not accompanied by any text, and are grouped into 6 thematic sections (I venture my own titles: portraits, nudes, gestures, hands, suffering, feet). Eliminating any reference to the medical context in which the photographs were taken, the aesthetic component is revealed as the element that gives unity to the whole. The fragmentation into book sections and the inclusion of diptychs and triptychs serves to create a narrative order, turning the experience of the book’s visualisation into a metaphor for the spectator’s journey through the different hospital wards. The introduction to the work is composed of texts that include the interpretation of a psychiatrist, an antipsychiatrist, a priest and an anonymous individual.