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Banner for An Iconography of Contagion.

Syphilis: A million new victims each year. U.S. Public Health Service, United States, mid-1940s. A dark hand opens a calendar to reveal a photograph of a swarming crowd. Underneath, the outline of an amoebalike blob overlays a shadowy field of red.About a hundred years ago, public health took a visual turn. In an era of devastating epidemic and endemic infectious disease, health professionals began to organize coordinated campaigns that sought to mobilize public action through eye-catching wall posters, illustrated pamphlets, motion pictures, and glass slide projections.

Impressed by the images of mass media that increasingly saturated the world around them, health campaigners were inspired to present new figures of contagion, and recycle old ones, using modernist aesthetics, graphic manipulations, humor, dramatic lighting, painterly abstraction, distortions of perspective, and other visual strategies.

Health campaigns had to compete with billboard advertising, comic strips, monthly magazines, tabloids, animated cartoons, pulp fiction, Hollywood, and later television. The designers and artists who were recruited for such campaigns came out of the same commercial visual culture. They devised a new iconography of contagion that emphasized visual legibility and the pleasure of the view.

The origin of the poster

The use of poster campaigns, with visually compelling graphics and slogans, originated in the mid-1800s in Western and Central Europe and North America. Wall posters and billboards were deployed in mass media campaigns to advertise theatrical performances, sell products, or propagandize for candidates and parties in political elections. A new visual culture emerged —