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Photographing Madness

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Richard Lansdown introduces Hugh Welch Diamond, one of the fathers of medical photography, whose images of the insane both reflected and challenged prevailing ideas about visually recording insanity.

A patient at Surrey County Lunatic Asylum, circa 1850-1858. Photograph by Hugh Welch Diamond.One of the gems of the Royal Society of Medicine’s library is the Diamond Collection, a set of 22 photographs taken by Hugh Welch Diamond (c.1809-86), a physician and founder member of what is now the Royal Photographic Society. The earliest British medical photographer, he was the first ever to take pictures of a wide range of inmates in an asylum, images that were exhibited in the first exhibition of photographs held at the Royal Society of Arts in 1852. His work chimed with the then fashionable view that one could diagnose mental illness from the face, a practice which hitherto had relied on drawings and paintings which he took to what was seen then as new heights: The Cornhill Magazine of 1861 spoke of ‘The dawn of a new day ... The faithful register of the camera ... will now render ... an actual science.’ Diamond, however, went beyond diagnosis; he put forward views on the therapeutic use of images. Although much of what his photographs stood for has passed, along with phrenology, his work remains as a landmark of its time.  

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