In Gloria A Hornstein’s article “Madness from the outside in” for the British Psychological Society magazine, I first came across Hugh Welch Diamond, and have become equally fascinated and appalled in equal measures since. In the article, Hornstein considers artistic depictions of insanity from as far back as the early 19th century.
Diamond was a psychiatrist and photographer who, in the mid-19th century, took photographs of the mentally ill in order to record the “minute variations in emotional expression.” The goal was to be able to see, through the photographs, the shift from mania to depression and back again.
Diamond was chief psychiatrist at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum and became obsessed with taking pictures of his patients during moments of madness. Anything that depicted mental illness in their facial expressions was a source of fascination. A vacant look, a tight jaw, what they were looking at, the shape of their eyebrows. He soon started exhibiting his work with titles such as “Phases of the insane,”
One of his most famous photographs was of a young woman in her thirties which became known as “Melancholy passing into Mania” She refused to look into the camera and focuses her gaze into the middle distance, what is she thinking, what are her thoughts? Is she angry, sad?
Welch believed that taking photographs of mania would help in the treatment of patients, although there was never any proof of this.
I find these photographs both fascinating and grotesque. They are moving, but at the same time I’m asking myself, who were these people? What was their story? How did they find themselves in an asylum, did they ever leave?