Thursday, March 28, 2019
Flashback 1999: Medical-photo business not always a pretty picture
I am on vacation. But before I simply hang out a "Gone Fishing" sign, I've rounded up a few of my all-time favorite columns for your reading pleasure. Today's and tomorrow's are linked: the subject of tomorrow's column read this, and contacted me, wanting a similar treatment.
I tried to find a trace of Custom Medical, but it seems to have vanished obliterated in the general media conflagration caused by the online world. No need to puzzle why: the image of bacteria above, labeled free for re-use, was pulled off the internet in seconds.
Life magazine wants tuberculosis. MTV, blood coursing through a vein. And Newsweek phones, every Friday it seems, seeking bubonic plague, E coli, cancer. They can't wait; they need it now.
The calls and e-mails pour into Custom Medical Stock Photo, on Irving Park Road, the nation's largest supplier of medical images: 500,000 slides, from the most benign — a happy baby, a vial of pills -- to the most macabre, horrifying photographs of disease and trauma imaginable.
When I ran into Custom Medical archivist Andy Hess, I knew I had to check out the operation. Making your living by tracking down pictures of brains and tumors seemed worth looking into.
OK, OK, I'll admit it, there was something else. The way I met Hess will explain the other reason I wanted to go. I was in my neighborhood bar, Friar Tuck's. The bartender introduced herself. "I'm Chris," she said. "I'm Neil," I said. A tall, bearded fellow across the bar stood up. "Neil?" he said, "Neil Steinberg?" He hurried around the bar.
As he approached me, I did something I'm not proud of. I lifted my hands defensively in front of my face and, cringing, squeaked, "You're not going to hit me, are you?"
I figured he was an unhappy reader.
When Hess—whom I had known in college—told me what he was doing now, my first impulse was, Yuuuuck. To counterbalance it, I felt I had to go and see for myself. Otherwise, I would always wonder.
Custom Medical has 13 employees and occupies an airy space below a dance studio, with high ceilings and sunny glass block windows.
The company was founded by Mike Fisher, who was a photo retoucher in the 1970s when he saw computers eating into his business. So he went to school to study medicine, hoping to become a medical photographer, when he met microbiologist Henry Schleichkorn.
"I had 5,000 photographs; he had 5,000 photographs," said Fisher. "We basically looked at each other and said, 'Somebody's got to get these medical pictures from somewhere.' "
Custom Medical has about 300 photographers and doctors contributing work. If the company doesn't have the image you want, it'll get it. Custom Medical once bought a cadaver and hired a pathologist to cut it up. It advertises for people with exotic medical conditions to come in and get their conditions photographed, for a small fee.
The pictures end up everywhere. The organs pulled from the cadaver—set upon a glass plate and photographed—ended up as the graphics for a kids toy. A set of scanning electron micrographs were made into animation for an upcoming Patricia Arquette horror movie.
"We're the kind of company where you see our pictures but you don't know it's us," said Fisher.
This does not mean that they will sell the images to anyone. The rock group Santana once asked for a photo of a fetus for an album cover.
"It's awfully inviting to say, 'That's my fetus on Santana's album,' " said Fisher, who refused. "But we're respectful of the material."
The business is complex. Price of an image depends on how big it will be printed, how long it will be used, and where it will appear, whether in a popular magazine or a textbook. Custom Medical once sold a picture for $20 to appear on the cover of a high school student's science report.
Some images do better than others. "There's a breast cancer cell that's sold like crazy," said Hess. The most profitable image is a ring of six surgeons—models—shot from below, as if a patient were looking up from an operating table.
"I lit it and did the shot in 15 minutes," said Fisher. "The picture has sold over 100 times now; it has easily earned over $ 100,000."
I asked Fisher if he ever saw anything that really upset him.
"There were images of individuals out of Zambia," he said. "They were the only images that set me back, only because of the lack of medical care. It was really sad. Some of them were children. I've shown them to physicians, and their jaws usually drop."
Before I left, I asked Hess to break out the really harsh stuff. He did, spreading several dozen slides across a big light table. I won't describe them, since every person to whom I've tried to describe them has stopped me after about three words. Let's just say you should be very careful around farm machinery. If you can avoid being shot, do so. And if anybody invites you to witness abdominal surgery on a horse, decline.
When I closed my eyes to go to sleep that night, those slides, clear as if they were in front of me, leaped and danced in my mind for a good long time. Sometimes, it's better not to confront your fears.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 10, 1999