Laura Larson: City of Incurable Women
Laura Larson’s City of Incurable Women, published by Saint Lucy Books, cleverly blends Larson’s personal photographs and writings with historical documentation and text on the history of Paris’ Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’s treatment of hysteria patients. Views of women’s mental health and bodies resonates with today and pairs beautifully with Saint Lucy’s Books whose mission statement is that they “investigate the marginal, hidden and parallel histories of photography.”
Larson introduces you to history of the French hospital, the doctors and their treatments, and the women’s biographies, case files, and their transcriptions. She seamlessly juxtaposes these with her own poetry and imagery. Grounded in Larson’s thesis is how both photography and the women’s bodies are connected. La Salpêtrière’s wet plate photo studio documented the patient’s hysterical traits and portraits, which are included throughout the book. At one point, one of the patients works in the photo lab, further intertwining the two. Halfway through the book, Larson creates unique images using the glass plate negatives of the patient’s intake photographs. Eventually, she uses wet plate collodion to create mysterious photographs of hand gestures. She ends the book with an image of a woman holding a glass plate, reflecting the sky.
As an object, the book has a nice presence in the reader’s hands, both in size and weight. Larson’s images are beautifully printed on a satisfyingly smooth and heavy paper. The book is smartly sequenced and elegantly designed. The various sections beautifully flow from one to another with a strong narrative connecting them all. One must read the book from beginning to end to connect all the threads Larson teases out. Part-history, part response, part-poetry, part photo book, Laura Larson’s City of Incurable Women warrants multiple re-reads.
Laura Larson is a photographer, writer, and teacher based in Columbus, OH. She’s exhibited her work extensively, at such venues as Art in General, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Centre Pompidou, Columbus Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, SFCamerawork, and Wexner Center for the Arts and her exhibitions have been reviewed in Artforum, Hyperallergic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time Out New York. Her work is held in the collections of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Deutsche Bank, Margulies Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Microsoft, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, New York Public Library, and Whitney Museum of American Art. Hidden Mother (Saint Lucy Books, 2017), her first book, was shortlisted for the Aperture-Paris Photo First Photo Book Prize. Larson organized a companion exhibition—the first to be devoted to this vernacular subject of hidden mother photography to be presented in the U.S.—which traveled from 2014-16 to Blue Sky Gallery, Palmer Museum of Art, Allen Memorial Art Museum, and Kennedy Museum of Art. She is the recipient of grants from Greater Columbus Arts Council, Ohio Arts Council and the New York Foundation of the Arts, and of residency fellowships from MacDowell Colony, Santa Fe Art Institute, and Ucross Foundation. She is currently at work on a collaborative book project with writer Christine Hume, All the Women I Know.
Follow Laura Larson on Instagram: @laura_larson_studio
Mining the intersection between politics and poetics, my work looks to photography’s history as a documentary practice to tell personal and sociocultural narratives. The assumption of objectivity that continues to haunt photography—the desire to trust our eyes—is a generative concern. Writing is a key aspect of my practice. I’m interested in how to write as a photographer, that is, how to write alongside and through photographs.
City of Incurable Women pictures the complex lives of the 19th century women, diagnosed as suffering from hysteria, who were hospitalized at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Incorporating a broad range of materials, Larson layers archival imagery with her own photographs and texts, speculating through the documented accounts of the women’s illness. Larson imagines the women as a collective, making a claim for their shared knowledge and the pleasures and risks of escape. Embracing photography’s capacity to feel, City of Incurable Women sees these women as unruly spirits that haunt the present, mining the radical possibilities of empathy and resistance.
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