Laura Larson reimagines the female patients of the infamous Parisian hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière

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Incorporating a broad range of visual and textual materials, City of Incurable Women is a treatise on resistance and community through a contemporary lens

Sigmund Freud called Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893), the director of Paris’ hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière, “a man who sees”. What Freud and other doctors saw were Charcot’s “hysteria shows,” which demonstrated how to correct the hysterical behaviours of female patients. Charcot also established a photographic studio at the hospital, making systematic studies of various states of hysteria. The resulting photographs, later published in the three-volume medical reference book Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1876–80), resurrected the belief that illness and deviance are written onto the (female) body. It also validated the notion that psychiatric diagnoses are physiological rather than historical or cultural.

Laura Larson’s new book, titled City of Incurable Women and published by Saint Lucy Books, performs a tender yet eruptive reimagining of the hospitalised women of the Salpêtrière. Structured in short chapters dedicated to each patient, it braids together a broad range of visual materials with history, poetry and first-person narratives. In dialoguing with and beyond the women, Larson pursues what she describes as “a liquid chronicle of [the] Salpêtrière, a volatile flow of chemistry detonating then and now”. Her book stirs up the disturbing issues embedded within Charcot’s Iconographie, while also serving as a treatise on resistance and community through the lens of the contemporary political landscape in which the autonomy of women’s bodies remains under attack. 

Here, Alex Merola speaks with Larson about photography, performance and challenging the camera’s desire to know.

Catalepsie: Suggestion, Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, Vol. 3, Plate 25. Courtesy Laura Larson.
Pose, 2019. Courtesy Laura Larson.
Attaque hystéro-épilepsie: Arcdecercle, Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, Vol. 3, Plate 3. Courtesy Laura Larson.

Alex Merola: The Jacques Lacan quote that propels the book – “Where are the hysterics, those magnificent women of former times?” – sets in motion the probing power of the publication. What was the basis of your search for – or reimagination of – “those magnificent women”?

Laura Larson: I knew I didn’t want to illustrate the women’s stories – that is, to provide an alternative narrative – but instead perform a looping call and response with Iconographie to converse with the women: Blanche, Augustine, Genevieve and Jane. Not to look back but to look around, look forward. I wanted to open up a space for multiple voices, including an imagined collective voice and my own. Bear in mind the titles of Charcot’s photographs refer to the stages of the hysterical attacks, not the women’s names or case histories. So, naturally, I was curious about the women’s relationships with each other, with the women who cared for them in the hospital, and with the women outside of the hospital – their histories as daughters, mothers, lovers, comrades. This felt like a way to think outside of, instead of counter to, the power dynamics that positioned the women as scientific objects of inquiry.

AM: As you write in the introduction, central to Charcot’s practice was the ideal of the photograph as an objective document: a tool used to “reveal” the signs of illness inscribed on the body. And yet, Charcot’s desire to heal inextricably mingled with the desire to control. There’s inherent performativity in these photographs.  

LL: Photography was a slow and laborious practice in the 19th century. The women photographed in Iconographie would have had to hold a pose since the glass plate emulsions were very slow. This complicates the idea that they were truthful and transparent documents. Photographing the women in hysterical states would have required some collaboration. At the hospital, there were tiers of diagnosis that determined levels of confinement and privilege. To collaborate with the doctors meant you received preferential treatment: a quiet ward, clean sheets, freedom to move about the grounds. I take it as a given that the women were suffering – a pain that I don’t think is necessarily available to the camera – and that there was an advantage to performing their illness according to their diagnosis. So, the photographs live in a space between candour and artifice.

Signals, 2017. Courtesy Laura Larson.

AM: Many of your photographs directly dialogue with Charcot’s, creating particular resonances between the hands depicted. What is your interest in them?

LL: The series of ambrotypes, for example, was spurred by looking at the women’s hand gestures and imagining them as secret signals – signals between subjects who are desiring, troubled and troubling. In the doctor’s playbook, physiological terms were used to describe the physical attitudes of the women’s hands: paralytic or atrophied. But, what if there was a language – parallel to the terms of diagnosis and under its radar – that allowed the relationships between the women to flourish? They could scheme, they could argue, they could exchange messages of love and condolence.

It’s an infuriating commonplace that women are still described as “hysterical” when asserting their subjectivities, speaking up and advocating for themselves. I was making the book during the long hell of the Trump administration, so my rage, fear and exhaustion fuelled the project. For me, the heart of the work is imagining what it means to live within a community and, by extension, participate in a broader struggle, not simply to advocate for one’s freedoms. Much of the book’s content, I realise, is very disturbing, but I think there’s hope and fire and fight in there too.

AM: There certainly is, most prominent in the tableaus where you picture women interlocked in strenuous poses. They invoke a range of traditions – from dance to protest photography – yet also resist easy categorisation. I can’t help but read your concealment of the women’s faces as ripostes to Charcot’s quest to “see”.

LL: Yes, this is such a beautiful way to describe my strategy. It may seem strange to describe the photographs from Iconographie as portraits, but this is where I began. The idea of disclosure drives these photographs and portraiture more generally: that a portrait will reveal a condition or character. So, the idea of turning away in gestures of self-preservation and resistance was really important to me. Working with dancers – both professionals and amateurs – was also central. It allowed me to animate the women’s gestures and stories in unexpected ways. I worked with two incredible dancers – Lucille Toth and Mathilde Guibert – who collaborated with me to develop scripts for improvisation. We did this with attention to the gestures and postures in Charcot’s photographs and how they could provide cues for movement. There are echoes of protest photography – historical and contemporary – and images from reporting on the US border crisis. But I was also looking at photographs of the Judson Dance Theater performances, particularly Yvonne Rainer’s.

Portrait of Jane Avrilby Paul Sescau, c. 1899. Courtesy Laura Larson.

AM: With increasing regularity towards the book’s end, we find photographs of and in nature. Each feels like an exhale, in stark contrast to the stuffy confines of Charcot’s studio. How are they intended to function relating to the “City” referenced in the title?

LL: They are stagings of escapes from the “City”; daring escapes of risk and pleasure. Some are playful, like Genevieve’s Escape, Part 1, which shows a woman perched on the roof of a house, arching her back towards the sky. But in Part 2, Genevieve lies on the ground, covered in a silver material – she could be hiding or dead. In Portals, two women are signalling to one another. I wanted that sense of connection fomented in the hospital to remain in play. The idea that they would carry that experience into their lives after leaving and it could be a source of strength and rebellion. There’s also a parallel line to these “escapes” with the Paris photographs that I made to retrace their histories: the statuary of the hospital’s chapel, the trees of its grounds or Jane’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

AM: How would you describe your overall strategy in this book?

LL: I’ll describe it as documentary poetics. City is more photo-forward than Hidden Mother (2018) and uses archival imagery alongside my photographs. In City, I want to honour the experiences of my subjects and their mysteries too. Political ethics of refusal aligned with what Édouard Glissant describes as “the right to opacity”… That is, the blind spots, what we don’t know.

All the Women I Know: Elisa, 2019. Courtesy Laura Larson.

AM: Or can never know? This seems to be an essential quality in your series All the Women I Know (2018–ongoing), which is included here. 

LL: All the Women I Know was nurtured in this project and is now its own ongoing series. A prompt for many of the photographs in the book was how to imagine a refusal of the camera. What if the women turned away, resisting representation? I had been looking at 19th-century mourning photographs where the subjects, usually women, turned their backs to the camera: a gesture at odds with the conventions of portraiture. I made some portraits in my studio, but they fell flat. Somehow, I landed on the idea of using my 35mm camera and began photographing my family, friends, students and acquaintances in their own spaces. Because the majority of the photographs in the book involved pre-production, I was longing for something that was everyday and low-stakes. As I accumulated images, I realised they had a collective power. I’m working on a project now in collaboration with writer Christine Hume who’s writing texts that tease out the implications of “all the women I know” and “no woman I know”. 

City of Incurable Women, by Laura Larson, is published by Saint Lucy Books.