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Pictures of Health

Custom Medical's Pursuit of the Complete Photo Archive

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By Mike Sula

Henry Schleichkorn and Mike Fisher are looking for the perfect woman. "We're not looking for a Penthouse girl or a stripper," says Schleichkorn. "We're looking for the girl-next-door-lives-in-Nebraska type. Blond hair, blue eyes, good muscle tone, five seven, 120 pounds. We're not talking about a one-night thing--just what 95 percent of every guy would like to marry."

"No love handles," says Fisher.

"No giant, uh...Volkswagens," says Schleichkorn. "We want the type of perfectly proportioned female you would see in anatomy textbooks."

When they find the one they're looking for, Fisher and Schleichkorn, medical photographers who run Custom Medical Stock Photo in Wrigleyville, want to take pictures of her and add them to their ever-increasing library of more than 250,000 medical and science-related images. They figure it's only a matter of time before such photos would be useful to, say, someone publishing a textbook on plastic surgery. "It's mostly subjective," says Schleichkorn, "but somebody can look through a book like that and say, 'Yeah, there's a perfect breast, that's a perfect nose.'"

Schleichkorn and Fisher wouldn't mind finding the perfect man either. Or people with scurvy, geographic tongue, anorexia, Paget's disease of the nipple--people with "any visible disease, syndrome, abnormality, etc...from albinism to zoster virus."

At Custom Medical the receptionist shares a cluttered room with half a human brain pickled in preservative. He takes about 50 orders a day from publishers and advertisers looking for a specific image--an electron micrograph of the HIV virus, a slide of a severed finger, a shot of a model in a lab coat administering a vaccine to a child. There's a small studio behind the reception area where Schleichkorn and Fisher shoot two to three "clinicals" per week, usually people who respond to newspaper classified ads they run asking for models with any sort of visible physical singularity. In recent days they've photographed two feet infected with a toe fungus, a man born with a flat head, a woman with a "royal" case of psoriasis, a man whose urethra was rerouted through his navel after bladder surgery, and a man with neurofibromatosis, an inherited condition characterized by the growth of bony deformities under the skin.

The two say they want to amass a complete medical archive, but the affable Fisher acknowledges that that's an unattainable goal. "It's a continual process," he says. "Publishers need to update their books. Hairstyles change, and you have to keep up with that. The photos always have to look modern."

"To get a complete library we shoot everything," adds Schleichkorn. "If ten people called us with psoriasis, we would shoot all ten. The color of skin, the area it's on, how bad it is--it's all different."

Schleichkorn knew he wanted to be a medical photographer by the time he was seven. He remembers being taken to his father's office in New York City and hanging out with a medical photographer down the hall named Martin Haggert. In the mid-60s medical photography was still in its infancy, and Haggert was one of the first to make a living at it. Schleichkorn went through an informal apprenticeship, learning how to process film and make prints, and when Haggert retired he left his equipment to the boy. Schleichkorn went on to get a degree in medical photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1984 he moved to Chicago to start a film-processing business for doctors, producing lecture slides and shooting surgeries and autopsies.

Fisher's path was less direct, though he was taking pictures by seventh grade. He took college courses in biology and photography and thought of becoming a medical photographer. "It didn't make sense to anybody I knew, so I just dropped it." He moved back to Chicago, shot bar mitzvahs and weddings for a while, and started retouching photos. In the late 70s he went back to school in the premed program at Northeastern, because he saw that digital technology was making the retouching business obsolete. It was there that he realized he could combine his skills. He took on a couple of medical-photography internships at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and Evanston Hospital, then was hired as the photo editor of Medical Insights, a mass-market publication that folded in 1987 after only a few issues.

Fisher then started working for Schleichkorn. Together they wrote a letter to Carol Kleiman, jobs columnist at the Chicago Tribune, touting Fisher as an example of someone who'd reinvented his career, and she featured him in a column that mentioned the photo-processing business. "As soon as that column hit we started getting phone calls," says Schleichkorn. "Steve Dahl's people called and wanted a photograph of a skeleton for some presentation they were doing for their advertisers."

"I called up one of my old professors and asked if I could take a couple of shots of a skeleton," says Fisher. "Came back, processed the shots, sent them off. I think we sold it for 75 bucks, which is a ridiculous price to us now, but we were slapping each other five."

Schleichkorn and Fisher pooled their portfolios, which totaled about 10,000 images, and started the first photo agency devoted exclusively to medical stock. They enlisted friends and associates and soon built a stable of contributors to supply a steady stream of images. They and about 300 medical illustrators, photographers, doctors, and researchers now add about 10,000 images a year to the library.

The cost of licensing an image ranges from $25 for postage-stamp-size icons that are used on the Web to thousands of dollars for images used in high-circulation publications. Prices also fluctuate depending on the size and placement of the image. "The bottom line is, you can't always get a disease when you need it," says Fisher. "So if someone is looking for something specific and we've got it, it's worth a lot of money to them. You can't just inoculate someone with smallpox for a couple of hours."

Today Custom Medical employs 13 people and has clients all over the world. Much of Schleichkorn and Fisher's time is spent on the business end of things, but both would rather be shooting than anything else. "If my kid gets a scrape I shoot it," says Fisher. "If his kid gets stung by a wasp he shoots it."

"If someone tells me his wife is about to have a baby I'll ask if they want pictures of it," says Schleichkorn. "I'll explain that the reason I can do it for free is that I hope to make money on it."

If they can't find models for what they need they often pose themselves. They've modeled as pharmacists, doctors, and AIDS patients. "My penis sold in a textbook once," says Fisher. Schleichkorn once posed with his arm around a sheep for a textbook on abnormal sexuality.

"Once someone wanted a shot of a woman making love to a snake," says Fisher. "I had to rent a frozen snake from this big-game hunter up in Libertyville. We defrosted it and shot it with one of the women who used to work here. We designed it to look like it was really happening. The whole place reeked for months afterward."

Such requests are not the norm, and the two strive to maintain an ethical reputation. All models sign release forms and are paid for their time (usually about $25). When they shoot women another female is always in the studio. Models' names never appear with images. Schleichkorn says they're careful to find out the context in which the images will be used before they license them, and they never sell to anyone who wants to discredit or defame medical science.

Schleichkorn says most of the clinical models pose for idealistic reasons. "It sounds corny, but a lot of people respond to our ads because they want to help somebody else. The money doesn't hurt, but they realize that it's for medical education."

Joel Farber recently had pictures of his eyes taken because he has pigmentosis, a genetic condition that caused him to be born with a combination of blue, green, hazel, gray, and brown irises. "Somebody told me pigmentosis affects something like one in 800,000 people," he says. "I just felt that if the textbooks don't have a picture of it, then let them have it." Farber's daughter was born 25 years ago with a little-known neurological disorder called dystonia, and it was years before she was diagnosed. Farber and his wife later founded the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, an international group dedicated to promoting awareness of the disorder, and he says it was his experience with his daughter's illness that made him respond to a Custom Medical ad.

Schleichkorn and Fisher will file slides of Farber's eyes under "special sense organs." Their classification system is based in part on the World Health Organization's system, with 72 broad subject areas, including bacteriology, electron microscopy, the digestive system, historical medicine, surgery, alternative medicine, and trauma.

"I could take you through our files, and you would walk out saying, 'Man, I'm so happy I'm so healthy. I'm so happy I'm so healthy,'" says Fisher.

Flipping through sheet after sheet of plastic-covered slides over a light table, Schleichkorn reads off names of diseases. "Here's adrenogenital syndrome, scurvy, elephantiasis of the scrotum, tuberculosis peritonitis, photosensitivity." He lingers over a slide of an elderly woman sporting a full beard then shouts across the room. "Jerry, what's hirsutism? Jerry's a walking encyclopedia."

Without looking up from his computer, a researcher intones, "Excessive growth of hair in areas that aren't normally hairy. It's related to skin receptors reacting to hormones in the blood."

Schleichkorn shakes his head. "Don't you feel lucky?" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Fisher, Henry Scchleichkorn photo by Cynthia Howe/ Alternating strabismus ("lazy eye")/ Diabetic injecting insulin/ Rheumatoid arthritis/.

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