The pharmaceutical industry is ubiquitous in our daily lives, whether in the relentless advertising of new drugs or the enduring crisis of the opioid epidemic. Since 2003, Pharmascience, a drug manufacturing company based in Montreal, has collected photography that responds to our visual culture of pharmaceuticals. The over 200 works include everything from Wolfgang Tillman’s “17 Years’ Supply” (2013) that frames a box of his empty containers for years of HIV medication, to Josef Breitenbach’s “Penicillin” (1946–49) that captures the life-saving antibiotic in abstracting detail. Selections have been on view at Pharmascience’s offices. Now the collection is accessible to the public in PhotoRx: Pharmacy in Photography Since 1850, out now from Damiani with text in French and English.
“The artworks in the Pharmascience collection tell a story about the history of photography and the role that pharmaceuticals play in our society, and, like pharmacy itself, they unite art, science, and commerce,” writes Deborah Goodman Davis, who curates and manages the collection, in PhotoRx. Davis adds that they initially concentrated on photography “because it combines science and technology with art.”
However, not all of the 75 images in PhotoRX are photographs. Matthew Brandt’s 2012 silkscreen of a waterfall borrows its colors and texture from crushed-up Adderall, Diflucan, chewable aspirin, and kava kava pills; Walter Robinson’s textural 1984 painting features a blue Bromo Seltzer bottle. The vibrant colors of pills and their boxes and bottles are attractive subjects for artists — see Damien Hirst’s endless takes on this theme — and always contain an undercurrent of unease for their potential abuse and treated pain. Todd Selby’s “Jacques’ Marilyn Monroe Pill Bottle” (2008), for instance, quietly focuses on a bottle of sleeping pills dispensed to the actress in 1957, an object now owned by interior designer Jacques Grange, who keeps it on a living room table in his Parisian home.
“Indeed, the visual appeal of pills is the counterpoint to the darker side of many contemporary artworks dealing with criminality, dependence, and long-term treatment,” writes photography scholar and curator David Campany in a book essay.
Interestingly, there’s a lot of street photography in the book, such as an interior shot of a New York pharmacy in 1936 by Berenice Abbott, and Barry Frydlender’s 2008 panoramic “57th Street and Sixth Avenue,” where a Duane Reade sign pops from the urban noise. Often a drugstore or advertisement just appears in the background of these street photographs, a fleeting glimpse of the cityscape that may or may not have been included on purpose, so pervasive are pharmaceuticals in our world.
“To follow the curatorial line from street photographs in which the pharmacy is incidentally present to images that directly capture its pills and paraphernalia is to understand how the pharmaceutical slips in and out of our daily focus,” Campany observes. “But it is always there.”