Jean-Martin Charcot – Capturing the Mind.


Régnard, “Lethargy. Contraction of the stern-mastoidian frontal muscles,” Iconographie, vol. III.

There were approximately four thousand women patients hospitalised at The Salpetriere when Jean-Martin Charcot began working there in 1863. The patients were, “female paupers, vagabonds, beggars, ‘decrepit women,’ ‘old maids,’ epileptics, ‘women in second childhood,’ ‘mishappen and malformed innocents,’ incorrigible women-madwomen.” (1)

francis-galton-2Composites Male Portraits of Criminals Convicted of Murder, Manslaughter or Crimes of Violence.

During the late Nineteenth century, photography was synomonous with authenticity. The body was institutionalized by Francis Galton in 1882, who produced composites of criminal and ethnic types. Alphonse Bertillion also devised a scheme in 1879 of measuring and auditing the body. Charcot was the leading neurologist of the time and Freud’s mentor. (2) He described The Salpetriere as, “a living museum of pathology.” (3)

iii_c_138Alphonse Bertillion, Poster of Physical Features, Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police

Charcot desired to capture what cannot be seen; the inner workings of the mind. Charcot systematically employed photography to capture the experience of hysteria, “thus demiystify it- for science, for fame, and for the “hysterics” themselves.” (4) He “used photography to visually represent a disease that defied anatomy and, thus, physical examination.” (5)

Charcot’s standardized images of the women are, “like phosphorescent specimens pinned in velvet boxes.” (6) The women are subjected, made subject and alienated through visual representation. They are forced to participate in constructing the image. Didi writes of the contrived staging and repetition of certain poses that represented different psychological illnesses. Charcot and his assistants were accused of coaching patients to perform, so he began focusing on symptoms that couldn’t be rehearsed. When a new symptom was discovered it was reproduced in the hospital’s photo studio for the scrutiny of Charcot’s gaze. (7)

In Lethargy, the woman is in the lethargic phase where the phenomenon of neuromuscular hyper-excitability is at its peak. (8) She is being touched by an instrument in order to trigger a response from the muscle; the muscle basically contracts. The reaching into the “dark chamber,” (9) the supposed “hand of God,” is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s imagery in La Jatee, where scientists perform experiments upon the male protagonist which will either result in insanity or death.


La Jetee Film Still, Directed by Chris Maker.


1. G Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 13.

2. U Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002, p. 26.

3. Didi-Huberman, op.cit., p. 13.

4. U Baer, op.cit., p. 14.

5. ibid., p. 30.

6.  ibid., p. 16.

7.  ibid., p. 31.

8. Didi-Huberman, op.cit., p. 96.

9. U Baer, op.cit., p. 35.


Lethargy G Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003, p. 201.

Francis Galton

La Jetee film still