French, 1820-1910, Hermaphrodite c.1860-61 (Albumen silver print )
A primary application of early photography was in the field of scientific enquiry, but much scientific enquiry in nineteenth century bourgeois society was marked by a particular inflection. The investigation of humankind was a particular concern, and disciplines as varied as archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, psychology and physiognomy flourished. Such interests were not haphazard, nor fortuitous. Science was an effective arm of the state – a ‘police’ matter, to paraphrase Michel Foucault – utilised not simply as a tool to repress disorder, but to order the dangerous, wayward exigences of human behaviour into a concerted and political pattern. So great attention was lavished upon the ‘others’, those outside the bourgeois norm of the scientific class – the sick, the poor, the psychologically disturbed, the racially deviant.
Since non-procreational sex – in the classic terms of Victorian and Second Empire logic – lay outside the sanctified bosom of the bourgeois family, the study of human sexuality became a particularly favoured area of investigation, eagerly colonised in much the same way ancient civilisations or remote jungle peoples were colonised in the name of knowledge. Sex, in short, was perceived to be an exotic oddity. As Foucault has observed further, sexual science in the nineteenth century ‘was in fact a science of evasion, since it concerned itself primarily with aberrations, perversions, exceptional oddities, pathological abatements, and morbid aggravations.’
Such an oddity, typical of the times, was photographed by the great French portraitist, Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon), at the behest of the eminent physician, Armand Trousseau, and the surgeon, Jules Germain Maisonneuve. The subject, described as a ‘jeune femme’, was a hermaphrodite, born with both female and male genitals, and Nadar made nine negatives around the end of 1860, possibly just before the patient was operated upon. In this view, the atrophied male and full female genitals are clearly displayed, pointed out by the dispassionate hand that would attempt to rectify this anomaly, a clear threat to the proper order of things. In the out-of-focus background, the unfortunate patient, obviously distressed by this undignified procedure, hides her face with her hand, a gesture that lends the grace note of humanity with which Nadar always seemed to invest his subjects. Interestingly, Foucault’s thesis of evasion might be tested by the fact that details of the operation were never published, neither in the form of a paper nor a release of the photographs. That may be due to a persistent rumour, since discounted, that the patient was none other than Musette la Mariette, mistress of the poet Champfleury and Murger’s Musette in his popular novel, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Or alternatively, perhaps she simply died upon the operating table – an embarrassing failure. Whatever the reason, the reappearance of these remarkable images in recent years, the least known in the photographer’s oeuvre, demonstrates that he complied absolutely with Trousseau’s request to make pictures that were ‘la plus vraie et la plus artistique.’