A sobering foil to the cartes-de-visite of the celebrated and powerful, these records from an unidentified British insane asylum exemplify the 19th century’s varied uses of the medium as a means of diagnosis, surveillance, and social control. The photography of mental illness has its roots in the physiognomic research of Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), who believed that diverse forms of madness could be read in the individual’s physical features. Emblems of Victorian repression, these kinds of pictures actually served multiple purposes: as a record of the patient’s initial condition, for therapeutic use with the patient to show them their progress, and as identification in case of escape. The photographs’ direct, scientific look is belied by the poignant and harrowing doctors’ notes, which tell of patients "forsaken by God". Like Alphonse Bertillon’s contemporary system of criminal identification using similar cards in Paris, the idea of a photographic archive of social "types" has served as a structural and conceptual model for artists such as Walker Evans and Diane Arbus.
Inscription: Inscribed in ink on mount, recto, TL: "62 yrs. [underlined] // widow of // Labourer. [underlined] // 13/10/76.; TR: "a.m. [underlined] // Epilepsy // Hereditary [underlined] // Shottenden. [underlined]; B: "Thought the S[aviou]r very unkind in not // coming earlier as she had 21 bab[ie]s // + had to do all the work herself. // Said her nurse was going to the // hospital to have her water let off // + her kidneys cut out. Asked for a // knife + rope to destroy herself. // Uses very bad language + altho almost too weak // to move swears at everyone. The above was // taken after 40 gr[ain]s of chloral [hydrate, a sedative].
Sean Thackeray (London auction, 1970s); Simon Lowinsky
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Indexing the World," May 25, 2004–September 19, 2004.
Esman, Aaron H. , M.D. "Psychiatric Photography in Victorian England." Harms Way: Lust & Madness, Murder & Mayhem (1994).