Past exhibition

The Ochi Collection – Medical Photographs from Japan around 1900

06.09.–02.11.2003

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He discovered them in an inconspicuous box made of paulownia wood that had not been opened for many years. In it he found 365 photographs of persons with congenital and pathogenic deformities. Akimitsu Naruyama, a collector and gallery owner from Tokyo, knew when he saw the first two or three photographs that he had unearthed a unique collection. The box belonged to the Japanese doctor Ikkaku Ochi. Born in Hiroshima in 1879, he attended the University of Okayama, the nearest large town with facilities for studying medicine. It seems probable that the photographs were distributed among the approximately 60 students of a particular year as teaching material, for the extremely rare cases of illness – e.g. elephantiasis of the testicles and breast and syphilis in its final stages – were discussed in the medical journals at the same time, although there they were illustrated by copperplate engravings since photographic printing techniques were still insufficiently advanced. The patients were photographed in what was then the town's largest photo studio, “Ôta Rakusuiken”. It was natural enough that the studio owner, Tsutomu Ôta, should have taken photographs of patients as well as school classes since he came from a family of doctors. His interest in photography began when he was working as a security officer in a school and came into contact with a camera for the first time when a pupil entrusted one to his care. Dr. Ikkaku Ochi's collection consists of contemporary documents of considerable interest to students of medical history: thanks to the developments in medicine, the symptoms of these illnesses no longer reach such an advanced stage as depicted in Tsutomu Ôta's photographs. The pictures have a sad beauty that distinguishes them clearly from the conventional western medical photographs à la “Pschyrembel”, for they are more like sensitive portraits, many of them with a strongly folkloristic background from Japan at the turn of the century, of people whom the photographer encountered with respect and dignity, even though it may be felt that the pictures of the diseased bodies were not – and are not – to everyone's taste.

The exhibiton was curated by Urs Stahel.

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