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A rt A F t E r D E At H Casey shea ’16


hese two unique and captivating cyanotypes, made by an unknown person, depict the human form at life size. Likely made in the 1940s, they show two sectioned views of the interior of the human body. The blue photographs display the complexity of the body as organs, muscles, tissue, and bones intricately weave around one other. The dark blue and stark white produce captivating images that speak to death. The certainty of death hovers over these images in their transformation from scientific objects to works of art, from cadaver slices to memento mori. It is hard to ignore how both body slices resemble a medical diagram, yet there are several facets that remind us of the true presence of death. The first work depicts a profile view of a male cadaver from the head to just below the pelvis in striking shades of Prussian blue (fig. 34). The bulbous head and intricate bone structure of the skull sit atop a bold blue spine that runs along the left side of the image, the bones encased in beautifully striated back muscles. Toward the front of the body, organs with blue shadows emerge from a large white area. The liver’s dark color stands out as it rests just below the heart and lung. The colon parallels the mass of intestines before reaching the pelvis. The apparently comprehensive specimen lies on a crisp white background. Three evenly spaced blue marks at the top and bottom of the page may be evidence of where the paper was tightly sealed during development. It is perhaps the decaying teeth crumbling in the mouth of the lifeless body that most readily alludes to death. The soul escapes while a machine cuts the human body into thin sheets. Pain and fear emanate from the figure. Its gruesome destiny reflects human mortality and the fragility of life. The second body slice reproduces a frontal view from the neck to the pelvis, excluding all extremities (fig. 35). The faceless figure provokes questions about its identity and what horrible fate led to its death. Like the image of the profiled cadaver, this work shows bold dark blue vertebrae that descend from the head. Segments of each rib form dots of blue encasing the heart,

lungs, and liver, as if to frame them. The spine interrupts a mass of intertwining muscles and intestines below the rib cage. In the lower part of the image, two dark shapes, made by the pelvic bones conjoining with the femur, are surrounded by powerful muscles stretching down toward the legs. The blue hue encompasses the body, creating an atmosphere of calm stillness, unlike the other cyanotype, which screams in pain. The death of these humans is no more predictable than how the viewer shall depart this life. One day, we too will become corpses, perhaps sprawled out for examination. The quality of memento mori is inescapable when studying these cyanotypes, but the meanings they possess as well as their purpose have evolved over time. Body slices are not common subjects for cyanotypes, and the process by which such an image would be made is still debated. Theoretically, using the traditional cyanotype method, placing a frozen cadaver slice on a chemically treated paper and exposing it to ultraviolet light as a contact print would not produce the colorations seen in these works.1 The vibrant blue bones and dark liver should remain white because these solid areas would have blocked the passage of light to the paper. The maker may have x-rayed a frozen cadaver using a certain energy level that would have allowed for a specific amount of bone and soft tissue to be seen.2 Similar works, including a pair of cyanotypes in the collection of Yale University Art Gallery, were created using this method.3 In the traditional cyanotype process, an x-ray would allow for light to contact the paper in areas where bones are present, accounting for the coloration in these images. Moreover, the surrounding dark ground of an x-ray would create crisp edges around the body and would translate, in a cyanotype, into the white field that surrounds these figures. Unlike the other works in this exhibition, these objects were not made as art but instead were probably teaching tools. On December 8, 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered x-rays, offering insight into the body.4 By the 1940s, the x-ray was a well-known tool and

Fig. 34: American, Body slice, Profile Cross-section, about 1940, cyanotype, Courtesy of David Winter 68

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period  

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period Edited by Nancy Kathryn Burns, Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Kristina Wilson...