One Mastectomy, To Go

You've no doubt heard of "drive-by surgeries"--the derisive term coined by health reformers for inadequate hospital stays mandated or permitted by health insurance companies. I thought of fast mastectomies as I read a profile of photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977) in the January 21 New Yorker. In Paris, she took jobs that her mentor and lover May Ray passed down to her. One of these assignments was to take pictures of operations at the Sorbonne medical school. The year was 1930. We're told: "Having watched a mastectomy, she asked the surgeon if she could keep the amputated breast. She arrived for a fashion shoot at the studio of French Vogue in a buoywant mood, carrying this grisly trophy on a dinner plate, then photographed it at a place setting, next to a knife and fork." Serve that at your dinner party, Judy Chicago!

The two small contact prints of a breast on a white plate were shown for the first time in a recent retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The show ended earlier this month. Miller's son told the Times of London that she was in the operating room not on assignment, but because she was having affair with the surgeon. The doctor invited her to take pictures and gave her the breasts because she asked for them. (As a sign of his love? Did the patient on the operating table wonder where her breasts had gone, could she have imagined that what had been inside of her would suddenly be put on a plate like the head of John the Baptist? That woman is the unknown soldier.)

Opines the Times: "For years [Miller] had been celebrated for the beauty of her breasts. At one time, her breasts had even inspired the design of a champagne glass. Images of her face and body, particularly her breasts, had been snipped up by Man Ray as part of his reductive process of control. 'What did all that do to her, I wonder,' says [son Tony] Penrose. 'The knowledge that men loved her body. Here she was, saying, "OK, you revere breasts. OK, here’s one. Have it. Eat it." And the shoot took place in the Vogue studio, where the commodification of women occurred every day.'"

How easy it is to offer someone else's breasts.

These days, a photographer couldn't run off with someone's breasts hot off the body. Can you imagine? Stop, thief! Once I was in a restaurant and the waitress told us someone had come into the kitchen and made off with half our pizza. But breasts?

How wrong it feels to have parts of ourselves that never see the light--to have them taken from inside of us and looked at.

We have bones and muscles to hold our organs in place, so they don't go flopping around inside us, and we have skin so that everything won't fall out of us. There is something horrible about seeing what should be enclosed and encased and hidden by skin.

In Israel there are Orthodox volunteers who gather body parts after a bombing to make sure that the remains have a religious burial. The people who do this often have PTSD.

What did that woman look like, the one who lay on the table at the Sorbonne medical school while another woman made sport of her breasts? Did that woman live? We assume her breasts were cancerous and were removed in order to save her. How old was she? How much longer did she live?

It's not so hard these days to find images of women with mastectomy scars. One of the most famous is Matuschka's 1993 self portrait on the cover on the New York Times Magazine. We can imagine what the Frenchwoman looked like after her surgery, though radical mastectomies were more the norm back then than now.

In 63 years we went from one woman taking a picture of another woman's removed breasts, to a woman taking a picture of her own scarred self after her breast was cut away. Beauty Out of Damage, she called it.

I wonder what Miller did with the breasts after she was finished with them. Who threw them away? I would bet they did not make it into a cemetary.

A dozen years later, Miller was photographing the European theater of war for British Vogue. In Saint Malo she accidentally stepped on the severed hand of an American soldier. She went on to photograph Buchenwald and Dachau; and in an extreme show of bad taste, in Munich she posed for a photo in Hitler's bathtub. This photo became infamous.

After the war she stowed her cameras and turned to cooking and drinking. She died in 1977, of cancer. I don't know what kind.

4 comments:

Susan M said...

This is a bizarre and interesting story. I like to come here for stories like this one. In a way, taking and photographing the breasts of someone else is not so different from writing and publishing an essay about someone else (something I have done a couple of times; in those cases, the "subjects" knew about the essays, saw the pieces, had reactions to them, which I then dealt with). This question of exploitation comes up often in creative nonfiction or documentary filmmaking, etc. But breasts off an operating table and onto a dinner plate . . . I agree this is going an extra step. Lots more thoughts on this (the photo of the one-breasted woman is so chic and high fashion, not the raw portrait I expected when I clicked on the link). I have a (unbreasted-by-surgery) friend who was working out at a health club once and saw a woman who had a colorful mosaic-patterned sports bra tatooed over her unbreasted chest and was working out shirtless. I have been thinking that you could reclaim the term Amazon from the online bookseller, perhaps, as those were the original one-breasted women.

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Oppenheim said...

Biographer Carolyn Burke provides a more sympathetic description of how Lee Miller and David Scherman, who made the photograph, got to Hitler's bathtub by way of orders of the commanding officer whose division had made the house an allied command post. I don't know whether the photograph as icon is as complex and ironic as Burke describes, but the biographer both interprets and quotes Lee as saying of Hitler that, and for that time in the bath and seeing what he must have seen, he seemed less unreal "and therefore more terrible . . . an ape who embarrasses and humbles you with his gestures, mirroring yourself in caricature."

Lee had marched in with the front of British forces in that part of her "war photographer" experience.

Dada and the Surrealists movements made for strange and other than sentimental commentary on everything. Later in life, Picasso would produce a portrait of Miller, painting in an eye between her legs.

Of the treatment of breasts in the old surgery, such, now to my memory--I wish I had a reference--has provided a foil for criticism of the despiriting nature of the reductive logical positivism that drove the medical science of the era.

There's some history also of abuse in Miller's biography, also accounts of spirited school behavior, so one may say, and such combined clinical, off-hand, deeply impersonal treatment of the severed breasts (by the surgeon as well as the photographer) may respond to that, the license provided by then contemporary art circle culture, and Miller's own proclivity for getting to the edge of out-of-bounds and then a bit beyond.

Ang J said...

I just had a mastectomy three weeks ago, and beforehand, that was the most upsetting image for me...I kept thinking about my severed breast being taken off on a tray, like the piece of meat that it is/was.