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Imagining IllnessPublic Health and Visual Culture$
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David Serlin

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780816648221

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816648221.001.0001

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Visual Imagery and Epidemics in the Twentieth Century

Visual Imagery and Epidemics in the Twentieth Century

(p.169) 9. Visual Imagery and Epidemics in the Twentieth Century
Imagining Illness

Roger Cooter

Claudia Stein

University of Minnesota Press

This chapter examines the changing character of the visual culture of epidemics during the twentieth century to chart the rise and fall of medical authority through a close reading of a controversial photograph: Oliviero Toscani’s poster on the death of the American AIDS activist, David Kirby. First released as a press photo in November 1990 entitled “Final Moments” and reconceived by Toscani as a part of an advertising campaign for the United Colors of Benetton in 1992, the poster was greeted with howls of protest and prohibitions. The photo raises interesting questions about the history and nature of medicine’s visual representation, about who owns and controls such images, and about how any complicity with them may have been established. This chapter considers the photograph’s subversion of religious iconography and links it to AIDS’s subversion of the traditional iconography associated with the visual culture of public health as well as the certainty with which medicine and its practitioners could claim success over previous public health crises.

Keywords:   visual culture, epidemics, medical authority, photograph, Oliviero Toscani, AIDS, David Kirby, medicine, religious iconography, public health

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