#1-2 - Eliza Camplin, admitted 1857, diagnosed with acute mania
#3-4 - Harriet Jordan, admitted 1858, diagnosed with acute mania
#5-6 - Eliza Josolyne, admitted 1856, diagnosed with acute melancholia
#7-8 - William Thomas Green, admitted 1857, diagnosed with acute mania
(source: Bethlem Museum of the Mind)
This series of photographs, taken by Henry Hering, document the patients of Bethlem Asylum, England’s most famous, or infamous, mental hospital (the word ”bedlam” originated from its name). With the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839 (the first widely-used photographic process) the medium came to be seen, first and foremost, as a boon to the sciences. For the first time, without the possibly biased middleman of the artist’s pen, images could be captured in a permanent form. It’s difficult to overstate the revolutionary power of the photograph as a documentary medium, but it changed reporting methods, basic systems of memory, and raised the bar for discerning viewership and a new standard of documentary accuracy.
It was taken up eagerly by anthropologists especially; images captured for later analysis were seen to provide previously impossible comparisons and compilations of images. (Keep your eyes peeled for a post on its use in the British Empire, especially India, to document and classify different ethnicities) The idea of the impartiality of the camera was also huge. When looking at commissioned portraits, it’s often clear just how much artistic license was taken with the subject, and usually the images were retouched for the sake of the customer’s vanity. The camera could not be tricked or biased, and it was seen as a huge step for the scientific ideal of unchanging, entirely objective sight.
Henry Hering, a well-regarded British photographer, was commissioned to photograph the patients of Bethlem Asylum, once upon their admittance, and again during their convalescence. Most likely, this was because Bethlem Hospital had a long history of mistreatment and abusive practices as the longest-extant hospital in England (opened 1337). Around 1815, demands for reform finally started to make some changes at the hospital, and Hering’s employment was most likely a move by the hospital to display their advances and curative powers in action.
Under modern analyses, the series is revolutionary for the questions it raises about the supposed “objectivity” of the medium; how can one tell who is insane? The images, as with almost every photograph in a time when the process required absolute stillness for as long as a minute, are posed, but they raise questions about our perceptions of outward mental illness even today. Much of the changes between photographs are in dress, hair, and posture, which are supposedly all altered due to the patient’s recovery and return to standard societal practice, but truthfully, we can’t be certain. Even in the hands of the scientists who lauded its invention, the camera can still lead the viewer.