The role of medical images in our contemporary culture is hardly new. The history of medicine can be understood by its images. Before the use of photography and other more advanced medical imaging technologies, anatomists hired artists to illustrate the intricacies of human anatomy. Medical illustrations in earlier periods, however, looked far different than contemporary images in medical textbooks. From the Renaissance to the 19th century, artists were as concerned with aesthetics and theology as with as properly rendering the physical body for lay and medical education. Until the late modern era, it was a common Christian belief that one could understand something about God through understanding God’s creation. Knowing the “book of nature” helped people to know God’s “divine architecture,” of which human bodies were understood as the pinnacle. The Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius and his illustrator Stephan von Calcar’s famously depicted human figures in the medical textbook De humani corporis fabrica (1543). The images, which capture flayed bodies dancing through different landscapes, are rich with metaphors of the divine, the passage of time, and mortality.
Over the past three decades, digital imaging has helped to transform medicine, but it has not necessarily helped patients to better understand their own bodies. Images such as MRIs are thought to help mediate the physician’s diagnosis and the invisibility of certain diseases, but it is unclear how helpful MRIs are with this quest. Medical images provide objective data to clinicians, but they are far removed from how patients experience illness or see themselves. Medical images no longer point the viewer toward God, the human experience, or the context in which bodies are situated. Instead, the bodies presented in contemporary diagnostic imaging are fragmented, colorless, fleshless, silent, still, and transparent. Human bodies are made into objects in the scanning process, so that data can be abstracted from them. As a result, physicians are sometimes tempted to look to these images to make sense of illness, rather than the living, breathing person in front of them.
I was diagnosed with a chronic illness with the aid of MR images. It took my neurologist all of 30 seconds looking at my MRIs to know that I had multiple sclerosis. At that time, nothing about this image of me felt familiar. It could have been anyone’s head, anyone’s brain. It did not look like me, nor did it look diseased to me. The physician, however, trained to interpret MRIs, immediately saw the bright white spots that shouldn’t be there, which signaled missing nerve connections. For this physician, like so many physicians trained to see human bodies first as broken apart images in a textbook, then as corpses, and only lastly as living persons, the MRI became the primary way he saw me. He had a hard time looking me in the eye, but he was very comfortable interpreting my MRIs. I was not satisfied, however, to let this image of my ill-body be the one that defined me. Knowing a bit about the history of medical imaging, I sought other ways to visualize my experience of illness.
I was fortunate to have an artist in my family, my sister Darian Goldin Stahl. In discussing my illness with Darian, we realized that the history of anatomical illustration allowed for a different way of seeing the body. Darian began incorporating my MRIs into her printmaking. Attempting to give flesh back to the images, Darian invented a way of “scanning” her skin onto the MRIs by creating an impression of her body in charcoal. The joining of scan and skin creates a new figure, which incorporates the MRI, but puts the body in context and gestures toward the unfolding and becoming of the body in illness.
 D. Stahl, Imaging and Imagining Illness: Becoming Whole in a Broken Body. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 2018.