In early twentieth-century France, syphilis and its controversial status as a hereditary disease reigned as a chief concern for physicians and public health officials. As syphilis primarily presented visually on the surface of the skin, its study fell within the realms of both dermatologists and venereologists, who relied heavily on visual evidence in their detection, diagnosis, and treatment of the disease. Thus, in educational textbooks, atlases, and medical models, accurately reproducing the visible signposts of syphilis – the colour, texture, and patterns of primary chancres or secondary rashes – was of preeminent importance. Photography, with its potential claims to mechanical objectivity, would seem to provide the logical tool for such representations.
Yet photography’s relationship to syphilographie warrants further unpacking. Despite the rise of a desire for mechanical objectivity charted in the late nineteenth century, artist-produced, three-dimensional, wax-cast moulages coexisted with photographs as significant educational tools for dermatologists; at times, these models were further mediated through photographic reproduction in texts. Additionally, the rise of phototherapy complicated this relationship by fostering the clinical equation of the light-sensitive photographic plate with the patient’s skin, which became the photographic record of disease and successful treatment. This paper explores these complexities to delineate a more nuanced understanding of objectivity vis-à-vis photography and syphilis. Rather than a desire to produce an unbiased image, fin-de-siècle dermatologists marshalled the photographic to exploit the verbal and visual rhetoric of objectivity, authority, and persuasion inextricably linked to culturally constructed understandings of the photograph. This rhetoric was often couched in the Peircean concept of indexicality, which physicians formulated through the language of witness, testimony, and direct connection.