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Light therapy and visual culture in Britain, c. 1890–1940

Soaking up the rays forges a new path for exploring Britain’s fickle love of the light by investigating the beginnings of light therapy in the country from c.1890-1940. Despite rapidly becoming a leading treatment for tuberculosis, rickets and other infections and skin diseases, light therapy was a contentious medical practice. Bodily exposure to light, whether for therapeutic or aesthetic ends, persists as a contested subject to this day: recommended to counter psoriasis and other skin conditions as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and depression; closely linked to notions of beauty, happiness and well-being, fuelling tourism to sunny locales abroad and the tanning industry at home; and yet with repeated health warnings that it is a dangerous carcinogen. By analysing archival photographs, illustrated medical texts, advertisements, lamps, and goggles and their visual representation of how light acted upon the body, Woloshyn assesses their complicated contribution to the founding of light therapy. Soaking up the rays will appeal to those intrigued by medicine’s visual culture, especially academics and students of the histories of art and visual culture, material cultures, medicine, science and technology, and popular culture.

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Chapter 2 questions British physicians’ conflicting perceptions towards sunburn (solar erythema) in the therapeutic process, as a physiological marker at once feared and desired during the cure. Both the visual sign of damage and therapeutic success, sunburn’s value was hotly contested amongst practitioners. This chapter tracks the ambivalent role of sunburn in the dosage standardisation of ultraviolet light through documentary photographs of c.1893-1940 that are particularly difficult to read, both literally and figuratively, beginning with a photograph of Finsen’s irradiated, sunburnt forearm - one of the earliest images, if not indeed the first, of ‘modern’ light therapy. British physicians and researchers came to convey enormous conceptual weight onto the visual production of sunburn, a phenomenon known to be visibly transient, latent and variable according to the individual, and thus a particularly uncooperative visual anchor on which to standardise exposures. The chapter argues that the very desire to ‘fix’ sunburn (to photographically record it for measurable qualitative and quantitative data), in spite of its variability, betrays deep-seated anxieties on the part of practitioners to wrestle control over light therapy as a purportedly ‘systematic’ and ‘modern’ form of medicine.

in Soaking up the rays
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Scholars studying light therapy’s history pay surprisingly little attention to its specific – and contested – methods, practices, and theories, preferring instead to examine its popular public appeal. 56 I propose that one cannot fully appreciate the latter without in-depth knowledge of the former. Above all, the historic role of images and objects has not undergone serious and methodical study. To carry out that study I

in Soaking up the rays
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Consumer Ideology ’, Art Journal , 41:1 (1981), 39–45; and Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘The Armed Vision Disarmed: Radical Formalism from Weapon to Style’, in Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories in Photography ( Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1992), pp. 86–110. 70 Maud Lavin, ‘Photomontage, Mass Culture, and

in Soaking up the rays
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, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest ( London and New York : Routledge, 1995), especially her discussion of the ‘Chlorinol’ advertisement, pp. 220–1. See also Rebecca Herzig, ‘ Removing Roots: “North American Hiroshima Maidens” and the X-Ray ’, Technology and Culture , 40 (1999), 723–45; Amina Mire, ‘ “Skin Trade”: Genealogy of Anti-Ageing “Whiteness Therapy

in Soaking up the rays