Nathalie Joffre




Madness and the archives: how can art de-construct our frozen gaze? (2012)

The starting point for my research is a collection of patients photographs taken by Henry Henring between 1857 and 1859 for the Bethlem Royal Hospital, a psychiatric institution funded in London in 1247.

In the 1850s,  ‘Portraits of lunatics, outside any tradition of patronage and taste, were acceptable as scientific documents. (…) They were seen as a collection, without any reference to individual portraits (…)’ (Burrows & Schumacher, 1990, pp 18-19)*.
However, when one looks at Hering’s photographs today, one literally meets people. Yet, as soon as one knows that they are part of a psychiatric hospital’s archives, their reading is no longer neutral because ‘archives establish a relation of abstract visual equivalence between pictures’ (Sekula, 2003, p 445). For that reason, we first tend to look for signs of madness in these pictures.  At the same time, these individual faces hold our attention because they hide personal stories. This tension between the status of these pictures as medical and archival documents, and as portraits makes them unique in the history of the photographic medium.
How to explain this impossibility to look at ordinary portraits once we know they come from Bethlem’s archives?
My aim in this essay is to try to understand in what extent this collection of photographs seems relevant to explore the construction of our gaze on madness and the archives. What could be the possible role of art in this investigation? In a broader sense: how by appropriating these pictures now, art can de-construct this gaze and even go beyond it?

*Burrows, A. & Schumacher, I. (1990) Portraits of the Insane: the case of Dr. Diamond. London: Quartet Book.