Hospital Snapshots 5

It is impossible to say with certainty why patients were photographed at Bethlem in the 1850s. Although documenting the ‘physiognomy of insanity’ may be one reason, building a body of evidence for the success of the new regime in the hospital may well have been another.

The Bethlem collection contains 6 pairs showing the same individual on admission and when convalescent. These ‘before and after’ shots might have been taken to allow doctors, and now us, to see the transformation that had taken place and evidence the claim of recovery. In all but one set, the patient is seated in the initial picture and standing when convalescing, perhaps conveying the idea of greater energy and purpose as they move towards recovery.

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In the last set, this order is reversed. Harriet Jordan, a 24-year-old cloak and mantle maker, is standing in the first photograph but seated and occupied in the second. It is perhaps startling that there is only a matter of months between the two. When Harriet was suffering from mania, she had been quite agitated, ripping her clothes and being generally destructive. For her, recovery might be more appropriately seen in the tranquil and decorous pose of a Victorian lady at her sewing.

In the second photograph she appears to have looked up from her needlework, a not uncommon photographic device at the time. One hand holds the fabric in her lap, her elbow resting on the table holding her thread. Her hair, curled either side, accentuates its roundness and the light flattens it. Though she is looking to camera and has the beginning of a smile, both unusual in the conventions of the time, her gaze is a touch vacant and reveals little. Her face is not shown in close up and the viewer is separated from her by her skirts. Although she is not seated behind the table, its edge and the positioning of her arms, marks the mid-point and forms something of a barrier. The overall impression is of an ordered and respectable woman, meeting the social conventions of the time and keeping onlookers at a suitable distance.

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UPDATE: If you want to help us to bring our photography collection into the 21st century then help us win the chance to work with acclaimed photographer, Rankin by voting here: http://bit.ly/voteBethlem.  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.

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