And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 27 February 2010


Hapsburg propaganda postcards from World War One

Or you'll be dozing safe in your dug-out -
A great roar - the trench shakes and falls about
You're struggling, gasping, struggling, then ... hullo!
Elsie comes tripping gaily down the trench,
Hanky to nose - that lyddite makes a stench -
Getting her pinafore all over grime.
Funny! because she died ten years ago!
It's a queer time.
Robert Graves; “It’s a Queer Time”

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front opens with one soldier coveting another’s flying boots. It sets up a basic image that will run through the novel; the German soldiers - they are about 19 years old - imagine the smallest comfort would make a huge difference. Battle is only one of their tribulations. Boredom, hunger and the pointlessness of the war wear them down just as much. A few chapters later the soldier does inherit the boots, when their owner, Kemmerich, is wounded and has a leg amputated.

This post’s gallery contains thirteen Austro-Hungarian propaganda postcards from the First World War. Every country involved in the war produced postcards extolling the virtuous efforts on their own side and the moral turpitude of the enemy. These particular images use a montage of photography, painting and text to depict the glory of serving your country. Technically they weren’t difficult to produce and could be churned out by the thousands. Even today they are relatively cheap to buy, but their price and availability isn’t what makes them interesting, although perverse may be the more accurate term.

Religion is a common motif in these photographs. A soldier shares bread with two children, guardian angels hover over soldiers, a nun stops to talk to two patients, the nurses wear crosses and crucifixes. But religion wasn’t a cause in the war. Even at Gallipoli the notion that Christians were fighting Muslims didn’t get traction. It’s not surprising though; propagandists always make a connection between dying for your country and dying for God. Religiosity however is not the most macabre element in these photographs.

That dubious honour belongs to their bloodless sentimentality. These soldiers aren’t really wounded. Their bandages and sheets are as pristine as the girls tending them. Perhaps the men in these scenes were genuine soldiers but if so, they were photographed before they’d seen battle. This is war as imagined by little boys, except that the people responsible for these images are adults, who must have had some idea what was unfolding on the front lines. By late 1917 citizens in Berlin were rioting against the war. On the other hand, around the same time, Baumer, the narrator in AQOTWF returns to his hometown and meets a local bore who still regards the conflict as a game of strategy. He at least would have seen no irony in these postcards.

The battles of the Somme, Gallipoli and Passchendaele created a whole new iconography of war. The death’s head and the rotting corpse chased the angels away from the trenches and it was easy to subvert the militaristic aesthetic of sharp diagonals and vibrant colour into morbid satire. By 1916 a Hapsburg soldier seeing a postcard of a soldier and nurse must have been baffled by its simple message. That year George Grosz and Tristan Tzara were using the same collage techniques as in these postcards to produce scabrous indictments. Instead of young, mooning conscripts their central figures were fat industrialists, cripples and dehumanized automatons. Could postcards like these have been an influence on Dada? The media with its raucous and saccharine nationalism was a part of the war machine, and it was a much more accessible target than the generals and factory owners. Whether or not these postcards directly influenced Dada, they were emblematic of the attitudes it damned.

In the late 1920s John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfelde) began producing anti-fascist posters also using photomontage. In November 1932 he produced one of two skeletons lying in a pit. All that remain of their uniforms are their boots, still in excellent condition. The caption reads, “And again?”


Tuesday, 23 February 2010


Turkish snapshots from the 1920s to the 1960s

“The true content of a photograph is invisible.”
John Berger

“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet

Sherlock Holmes could be a pompous ass when he wanted to be. Once the impossible is eliminated, what remains is an infinite series of possibilities, any one of which could be the truth. And the truth isn’t the point. It’s enough to know that something might exist for it to be a reality. Watson may have been impressed by his friend’s colossal mind but any student of Poincaré and late 19th century mathematics would have demolished the ‘perfect reasoning and observing machine’s’ arguments in short time.

There are three participants in the taking of a photograph and they don’t have an agreeable relationship. What the photographer observes, the camera records and the viewer sees are never the same. A man poses for the snapper. The instrument records everything permitted within its frame. The viewer gets the man sure enough, but he has a tree growing out of his head. 

Logic is less concerned with what exists than it is with making the invisible apparent (the original use incidentally of photography). Holmes’ rationale says a tree can’t grow out of a person’s head. A mathematician may agree that it shouldn’t, but if we allow it to a realm of possibilities comes into existence. Assume the irrational, suddenly light can travel at different speeds and we have the special theory of relativity. 

Usually, when we look at a photograph our impulse is to see it through Holmes’ eyes, to reach a logical conclusion based on a combination of knowledge and evidence. The Holmes in our brain tells us there must be a rational explanation. The Poincaré in us however rejects mundane thinking and requires alternative possibilities. Once we do, we are free to imagine any number of situations that led up to the moment the photo was taken. The ones that don’t satisfy us aren’t necessarily the least likely.

Holmes liked enigmas so long as he could explain them but enigmas should resist explanation. They exist so we can think of other possibilities. He made no pronouncements on photography, nor claimed to have published a small monograph on the subject, but the suspicion is he would have regarded a photograph with skepticism if not deep mistrust. On this point he would have agreed with a student of pure mathematics. Photographs may be evidence of an event but despite appearances they are proof of nothing. That is why photographs are neither art, nor science, logic or rational philosophy but they can be all of them.


Friday, 19 February 2010


Bulgaria, 1901 – 1930

Epaminondas sure did a swell job civilizationing everybody with murder and hatred.
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi

There are two paintings in the National Art Gallery in Sofia commemorating Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottomans in 1878. Against a grey, gloomy sky, the Bulgarian army retreats from a battlefield, leaving the bloodied and decapitated corpses of Ottoman soldiers scattered in the muddy foreground. These paintings don’t celebrate freedom. They are about the total destruction of the Ottoman forces, a grim revenge for centuries of domination and for the massacre of several thousand Bulgarian Christians at Batak two years before; an episode so savage it compelled the British Government to withhold support for Constantinople when Russia invaded the empire. They are also a presage of what will befall Bulgaria in the next century.

Foundation myths demand that a nation must pass from a dark era of brutal subjection to a new age of freedom and possibility. Think of the celebrations when the Berlin Wall was torn down, or of Ataturk dragging Turkey away from an old and broken regime. If Bulgaria had such a moment it was brief. Whatever the ordinary people wanted, the political leaders locked the country into the tangled knot of Balkan realpolitik. First there was war with Serbia, Russian intervention, an alliance with Serbia and Greece against the Ottomans, another war against Serbia, and Greece, and then World War 1, wherein Bulgaria signed a fateful alliance with the Ottomans. The interwar period followed a similar pattern. Alliances led to redrafted borders, which led to coups, which led to new alliances. In the Second World War Bulgaria kept up the tradition and managed to be at war with everyone. It was part of the Axis until it withdrew in August 1944. Russia invaded, Bulgaria declared war on Germany and meanwhile the Allies bombed Sofia. After all that, the Soviet takeover was a formality.

Four years ago, the railway between the Turkish border and Sofia ran through a long graveyard of abandoned factories; every window smashed, weeds crawling up the broken steel fences, rusting vehicles scattered about. The nuclear power station belonged to the apocalyptic landscape in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Here, at the edge of the Soviet’s western empire, it looked as though one occupier had fled before the new invaders arrived. Today the EU has erected billboards announcing reconstruction projects but Haskovo, an hour’s bus ride from Plovdiv, still shows what the Bronx would look like if Stalinists took it over.

For centuries Plovdiv was a city pinned between empires. The evidence is all there. A Greek ruin is being excavated on a hill overlooking the Maritsa River. In the city centre a restored Ottoman mosque overlooks a Roman amphitheatre. On the hill behind them lies the ‘old town’, a cluster of brightly painted gingerbread houses, mostly dating from the 1850s to the 1870s, when the city was the centre for anti-Ottoman unrest. Lovers of Communist era architecture (a distinctly asexual perversion) have much to admire in the former administration buildings surrounding the main plaza. Everybody came to Plovdiv, left their mark and departed, usually in a hurry. A year or so back, the city was identified as the centre for counterfeiting in Europe, which is an honour really if you think about the competition it faced from Naples, Bucharest and some other worthy entrants.

The images in this post are real photo postcards bought at various times in Plovdiv. The earliest is dated 1901, the latest from 1930, covering that era when Bulgaria, liberated from the Ottomans, was at the mercy of its neighbours and its own government. This is what sitting ducks look like.


Monday, 15 February 2010


Two wallets of American snapshots, dated 1949 and 1955

 “Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”
John Updike

On Tuesday, June 16, 1949 a middle-aged couple board a tour bus in Tampa Florida. We know his name is James, and she signs her photos ‘Mum’. Maybe they are retirees, like their companions John and Greta Nell, though a lot of people in the 1940s looked prematurely aged. They also look like Republican voters but then all white Americans did in 1949. James wears a ring on the little finger of his left hand. Is that significant? He’s a swarthy character, and while this may be unfair, bears a passing resemblance to Alvin Karpis, the real head of the Ma Barker gang. (Can’t be of course; in 1949 Karpis is midway through a thirty year stretch in McNeil Island Federal Prison.) Mum looks like, well, Mum. Her facial features hint at an ancestry that could be Italian, perhaps Jewish central Europe, but she is an American. She cooks American, not well mind you but who had to in 1949? That year you could buy a frozen chicken at the supermarket and two aisles away stood shelves of sauces in a myriad of colours. Heat and serve or, as the voices on TV kept stridently insisting, let “it” do the work for you.

 Where are they heading? To begin with, where are they? McCarthyism is in full swing, sniffing out communists wherever such types congregate. Hollywood, full of liberals and émigrés, is an obvious place to search and a couple of weeks earlier the FBI identified Edward G Robinson and John Garfield as fellow travellers. Do James and Mum care? Perhaps, but last night, 19 year old Ruth Steinhagen shot baseballer Eddie Waitkus in a Chicago hotel room. Everyone is talking about that. Not all American men pay loving attention to the sport pages but it is important to be able to discuss them, especially at work. On Friday night Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott are fighting for the world heavyweight championship. John Nell has strong ideas about that contest; Dempsey would have licked the both of them. The world is essentially a good place. If there is a communist threat, the FBI can sort it out. Ruth Steinhagen is real enough but she was a lone wolf and no proof of a social phenomenon. And Joe Louis was champion for twelve years. Whoever wins on Friday, a change is for the best. Welcome to the summer of 1949.

The bus pulls out on to a highway fringed with palmettos. Every billboard rolling past tells the passengers to relax. In the small towns they stop to stretch their legs the wooden churches are scrubbed and gleaming white. Sons wear the same clothes as their fathers. The motels with their neon palms and tepees are called the Starview, the Tropicana, Crystal Bay and Seminole Lodge. Every one of them has ‘air-conditioning!’ and ‘TV!’ and Mum thinks they belong in a dreamland. In her day, motels were cheap, sinister places inhabited by girls like Ruth Steinhagen. But Mum has other issues on her mind. It’s a long way to Kansas, especially in the summer. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, into Missouri then across the last state line, and she has a touch of gout, needs pills for her heart and she can’t sleep on a bus no matter how streamlined its exterior or friendly the other passengers. Cars the size of bedrooms overtake the bus. In a Mississippi gas station the pump jockey is listening to some godawful music on a wireless. He jitters across to the bowser like an injured rattlesnake. It’s a sight, and another reason for her not to sleep well tonight …

Easter, April 10th, 1955.

Her mother and father, sister and her husband have come for the long weekend. Her own husband’s parents can’t make it. Mum is back in hospital and James won’t travel far. Never mind. They will go down to see them in the summer, if her husband can get a break.

They are standing on the front lawn, waiting for her parents to attend to final details so everyone can go to church. She hopes the preacher desists from his usual sermon about reds being the enemy of freedom. Not that she disagrees but there are other problems in the world. It would be a nice change if today he talked about the sacrifice Jesus made.

For her birthday in February her husband gave her a Contax camera. The instruction booklet was intimidating at first but the camera is actually easy to use. Look through the viewfinder and adjust the dial on the lens until the little arm touches the circle, then press. It’s foolproof; even her nine year old nephew can use it. Actually, she is used to instruction manuals. The new washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, TV, every appliance these days comes with a booklet written in an obscure language more complicated than it needs to be. “Smile Honey.” She tells her husband, having directed him to stand, as the manual recommends, with the sun over her shoulder. Now it’s the nephews’ turn, now her sister’s.

After church they will come back for lunch. The chicken will only take an hour in her new GE Electric Range to cook through perfectly. It takes five minutes to make instant gravy and about the same to make instant potato whip (though her mother insists that is a travesty of the real thing). The carrots and peas are ready to boil and she has three tins of pears on hand for dessert.

She has another reason to worry about the preacher’s sermon. If he does talk about the red threat his words may follow the family back to the dining room table. The problem here is that after his year’s duty in Korea, her husband has certain views about communism, or rather, ways of expressing them. It’s upsetting, and he sometimes uses language the boys shouldn’t hear. Still, they will probably avoid all that. Most likely they will talk about life insurance, or ways to minimize the mortgage. One thing she knows about men; it’s a matter of pride that in front of their wives they should sound knowledgeable and responsible about financial affairs. In the old days they probably wore face paint and thumped their chests. These days they outdo each other analysing the fine print in insurance policies and which fund is best for their sons’ college years.

She and her sister have their own rituals. First they will dispense with domestic matters, the new words her eighteen month old son is using, and the measles epidemic that swept through in January, but they really want to talk about the new Sears Roebuck catalogue and the latest Butterick patterns available. Her sister shows off the new skirt she made and their mother smiles indulgently. Both girls accept she knows more about dressmaking than they will ever learn. Growing up in small town Wyoming she had no choice. In her youth she didn’t have electricity or a telephone or any of the appliances her daughters take for granted.

Food is a good topic too. How does Betty Crocker get her desserts to look so perfect? It’s no accident both daughters look just like the women on the packets of instant cake mix. The companies put a lot of research into packaging these days. So do women.

She lives in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Sometimes it seems America is becoming a troubled place. Her husband agrees that McCarthy is going too far accusing the Army of harbouring reds, then again, he warns, Russia now has the bomb. A few weeks ago Claudette Colvin, a black teenager, was dragged kicking and screaming off a bus in Alabama because she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. On television last night a spokesman for some organization was fulminating against a younger generation turning godless and amoral. She wasn’t sure if he was referring to her generation or one just below. Either way, she agrees with her husband that he was taking things too seriously. Life in America is different today. They don’t have their parents’ problems, the Depression is a distant memory and everyone it seems is going to college. But here is the main thing. Whatever is troubling this country, she is certain their little suburb is immune from it. It’s an enclave of peaceful quietude. Not so long ago this part of North Carolina hummed to the sounds of cotton mills and dredgers on the river, now it’s the spin dryer and Mystery Theatre. As she collects the plates and takes them to the dishwasher she subconsciously brushes her stomach. She doesn’t want to tell anyone yet but her period is two weeks late.

“America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.”
John Updike


Tuesday, 9 February 2010


The photographs of Lehnert and Landrock

“If I had been a moderately good otter I suppose I should get back into human shape of some sort; probably something rather primitive – a little brown, unclothed Nubian boy, I should think.”
Saki: Laura

Dixieland bands - white, middle aged men wearing straw boaters and candy striped shirts - are a travesty of jazz. They take all the necessary elements yet somehow leave out the soul. The Lehnert and Landrock Company were the Dixieland artistes of Oriental photography. From 1904 to the 1930s they exploited the image of Egypt, from its antiquity to the eroticism of the veiled Muslim, the sunless medieval jumble of the cities to the simple dignity of the peasant, and made it accessible. Whether we accept their photographs as realistic interpretations or reject them as colonialist stereotypes, we are familiar with their Egypt. We saw it in Raiders of the Lost Ark and just about every other film set in Egypt before World War 2. There are no florid European men in white linen suits and panamas or straitlaced wives of British diplomats loosening their bodices in Lehnert and Landrock photographs, but in a way they are full of them. In a way, when we look at Lehnert and Landrock photographs, we become either of those two types. Much more than the earlier, monumental landscapes of Francis Frith or Maxime du Camp, Lehnert and Landrock’s impressions infused the European imagination for most of the 20th century.

Rudolf Lehnert was the photographer, Ernst Landrock the business manager. They met in Switzerland in 1904 and later that year moved to Tunis to open their first studio. In 1924 they relocated to Cairo, two years after Howard Carter had uncovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. If Carter’s discovery had no influence on the company’s decision to relocate, the move was fortuitous. Tourists were returning after the hiatus imposed by the war. Popular novelists like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr took murder out of the English manor and set it in the desert. Art deco designers rediscovered Egyptian form. Lehnert had a gift for depicting Egypt the way westerners wanted it to be.

Tourists went to Egypt to have their expectations fulfilled. They came to see antiquity and exotic landscapes. No one really went there because the political situation was interesting. In a typical Lehnert view of the pyramids they are placed in the background, often slightly out of focus. The foreground is given to an Arab, his camel and a date palm. This was about a complete picture of Egypt as anyone wanted. To ask for more would have been greedy, to give it would have risked raising questions; ‘what’s that doing there?” “Are there really such things running around Giza?” Naturally, the people in a Lehnert and Landrock photograph are poor but happy, and look remarkably healthy.

Today the image of the veiled woman evokes negative connotations; fundamentalism, oppression, terrorism. In the 1920s it seems a more important question was what lay underneath her garments. Lehnert and Landrock told us. Their nudes remain their most sought after images. The market back in Europe may have been select but from the sheer number of images still circulating it was also insatiable. Of course, the Orient always had that allure; Flaubert’s Egyptian journals from the 1850s amount to a brothel crawl with occasional, obligatory investigations of the ruins, and he was hardly the first to visit with more than history on his mind. Lehnert and Landrock also catered to the pederast market. Androgynous semi-naked boys lounging against doorways were a specialty. The image on view in the gallery, “Good Friends”, is borderline. It could pass as a shot of typical native boys but it could also be an invitation to ageing European males of a particular inclination.

When Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978, he made no mention of Lehnert and Landrock but he gave their nudes an intellectual credibility. Once they had merely been exotic soft porn. Now people could buy them as artifacts of cultural analysis their value shot up. Said might say that has only confirmed his argument that all westerners were imperialists but what was he expecting? Thanks to his book, exhibitions and catalogues of orientalist art (particularly of the academic variety) had a new cachet.     

Lehnert and Landrock published an enormous number of images in several formats, from archival fine art prints to lithographs, photogravures, postcards and miniature snaps. The fine art prints (particularly the nudes) can sell for several thousand dollars. Postcards and snaps can easily be found in European antique stores and junk shops. The images in this post include a heliogravure, medium format prints, postcards and snaps. 


Friday, 5 February 2010


Two soldiers on the Khyber Pass, 1925 – 26

“It’s punishment – not war.”
Rudyard Kipling, Kim.

The Great Game had ended in a stalemate, as such conflicts always do, and the two broken empires, Britain and Russia, retreated to consolidate their meagre gains. Between May and August 1919 Britain and Afghanistan fought the Third Afghan War. In November the same year, Waziri tribes led an uprising against the British that lasted just over a year. In both conflicts the British suffered the heavier casualties. Not coincidentally, 1919 was also the year Britain began extending the railway line from Jamrud (now in Pakistan) to Landi Kotal on the Afghan border, snaking along the Khyber Pass. Two British soldiers posted along the railway brought cameras with them. They have left us a glimpse into a situation that has ramifications today.

All of the photographs bar one have inscriptions on the back, written in two distinct hands. The first seven, ‘George’s’ photographs, were taken around Jullundur, in the Punjab province between Amritsar and Lahore. The other photographer took his at the camp at Landi Kotal. The photographs were bought loose from an antiquarian bookshop in Perth, Australia in 2008.  They could have been part of a larger collection previously accumulated by someone with an interest in the area, in which case neither man may have known each other.

On the back of his photograph of the Hindu temple, George refers to the 17th Dogra Regiment, the Dogra being hill people from the Punjab.  A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals the regiment was founded in 1922 by combining four battalions. As George conveniently dated his photos, this information doesn’t add much except to help an expert more precisely locate him and possibly identify his regiment.

George’s photos give us the soldier. You may have met him before, in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy or in his later years in Dad’s Army. Maybe George hated India, the crowds, the squalor, the heat, but it was an adventure and he saw things he knew he never would back home. The photographs of the cattle and the temples show an interest in the culture.

The second photographer gives us the situation. A soldier posted to Landi Kotal might wonder what he’d done to deserve it. The camp is as desolate as the Pass. The barbed wire surrounds it because army regulations say it must but no one could seriously believe it kept anyone out. The corrugated tin sentry box is a place no one would want to venture into, especially around midday. It looks like it was knocked together in a couple of hours, but then the entire camp does. At first glance, the photo of the boxing match looks like it was taken by someone who had never held a camera before but on closer look it’s full of information. The shadows of the spectators, the figures in the background, the poorly constructed buildings and sparse landscape are details a writer might have missed.

The Third Afghan war and the Waziri uprising became notorious for the RAF’s use of aerial bombing. In the 1980s it emerged that some of the bombing raids were not strategic but used purely for training purposes. Afghan tribespeople were killed to satisfy British curiosity. They were relatively minor incidents cast against the long history of the British presence in Afghanistan but they are reasons why, eighty years later, Britain is still at war with the Afghan tribes. George and the other photographer probably never imagined their great grandchildren would come back to try and clean up the mess they had left.  


Tuesday, 2 February 2010


 Portraits of psychiatric patients C1880s

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat. “Or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Lewis Carroll; Alice in Wonderland

“The photographer catches in a moment the permanent cloud or the passing storm or sunshine of the soul and thus enables the metaphysician to witness and trace out the connection between the visible and the invisible in one important branch of his studies into the philosophy of the human mind.”
Hugh Welch Diamond

When Hugh Welch Diamond photographed psychiatric patients at Surrey County Hospital in the 1850s, he believed the camera was a new technology that could record things beyond human perception. In one way he was right; photographs could capture objects invisible to the naked eye. He was mistaken in believing that abstract ideas would freely offer themselves to the photographer. A photograph of a psychiatric patient was not a photograph of their illness.

The mistake wasn’t his alone. At Salpêtriére hospital outside of Paris, doctors and photographers including Guillaume Duchenne, Paul Régnard and Désiré-Magloire Bourneville began photographing psychiatric patients with much the same idea in mind. Duchenne took a series of photographs of a Parisian shoemaker suffering from Bell’s palsy. In order to record emotions Duchenne attached electrodes to various parts of the patient’s face to trigger muscular responses. The shoemaker’s subjection to science wasn’t entirely in vain. Duchenne was able to determine that emotional displays activated specific muscles, if a person smiled without using particular muscles that smile was either false or it could indicate a neurological disorder.

Régnard and Bourneville were more interested in documenting hysteria. The chief physician at Salpêtriére, Jean Martin Charcot, had instituted one reform and made two discoveries that revolutionized treatment of hysteria. The reform was to turn the hospital from a prison into a place for proper medical treatment. The old idea that people could be gathered up and dumped in a place out of sight, out of mind, was jettisoned. Salpêtriére would have gardens, stores and workplaces for the patients. Some commentators would describe the hospital during Charcot’s tenure as a city unto itself and by the 1880s it was appearing on tourist itineraries. The discoveries were first, that hysteria could be traced back to a trauma and was not therefore a physical illness of the womb or contagious as had earlier been believed. The second was that it wasn’t specific to women. Men could also be afflicted.

The work that Régnard and Bourneville undertook to document hysterics was collected in the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtriére, the first volume coming out in 1876. It is a dubious record. It was later revealed that one patient, ‘Augustine’, actively played with the photographers and assuming poses for the camera. Actually, that should have exploded another myth, being that during the third stage of a hysterical attack, the ‘attitude passionelle’, a patient was supposedly unconscious of her surroundings. ‘Augustine’ evidently wasn’t.

In 1882 Albert Londe arrived at the hospital to begin working as a chemist. His work marks a new stage in the relationship between photography and psychiatry. Londe wasn’t interested in ideas that the camera could somehow penetrate the mind of the patient. He was more interested in the physical manifestations. By now Charcot had realized that hysteria could display itself in a variety of ways, that not everybody underwent five stages, and that some might be attacked by uncontrollable spasms while others remained catatonic. Londe’s task was to assemble the variety of these manifestations on the possible theory they could be traced back to specific neurological dysfunctions. In order to document them properly, Londe needed to record them using chronophotography, that is, in sequences of time so that the ways that patients twitched and convulsed could be compared against each other.

In a sense Londe’s work was also a failure; the catalogue would reveal nothing from which a solid medical diagnosis could be made. Still, it represented a more clinical approach to photography and the acknowledgement that the camera was limited in its applications. The recording of movement would become important in diagnosis if only to document the severity of attacks.

The photographs in this post’s gallery are a selection from 42 bought in an antique store in Istanbul. (The proprietor did not realize their significance and for once One Man’s Treasure came out the better.) They are in the CDV format. Each carte has a description of the illness and some have the patient’s name on the back. The illnesses are written in French, the custom of the time, though the names are German. Each portrait has a pinhole in the top left, suggesting they were affixed to documents or possibly to a wire loop for quick reference. They are undated though most likely taken in the mid to late 1880s. There are three basic styles; vignettes, which may be the earliest, full length portraits on albumen paper and what may be early gelatine prints on yellow card.

These portraits make no attempt to analyze the psychiatric condition. Rather, they are mug shots, used to identify the patient for the hospital records. Not every patient’s illness is apparent; without the description we could be forgiven for thinking some are regular studio portraits. This suggests the hospital may have recognized that the concept a camera was a metaphysical tool was wrong. Alternatively it did employ photography as such but at a different time. Whatever the case, the images still provide a window into the mind of a psychiatric patient in the late 19th century. Most of these people are visibly ill. They are also, clearly, incapable of looking after themselves. Their smiles shouldn’t be seen as indications of happiness but dislocation. A number suffer from ‘dementia paralytica’, a euphemism for tertiary syphilis (also known as ‘general paralysis’). Idiocy is probably senility and melancholia, depression.

In the two decades immediately before these photographs were taken, psychiatrists, or as they were usually known, neurologists or alienists, had advanced knowledge of mental illness, somewhat. Apart from Charcot’s work, the classification of illnesses had become more refined so that schizophrenics were distinguished from epileptics or hysterics. Around the same time Freud was a student at Salpêtriére and developing his ideas on hysteria. They come from a period then when ideas about psychiatry and insanity were being revised. More emphasis was being given to locating the source of the illness from which, therefore, a cure might be effected.