Katherine Rawling – Asylum Snapshots: Institutional Photographic Practices and Patient Images at Holloway Sanatorium, Surrey, 1880-1910

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History

Event Date:
14 and 15 September 2010

11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)


Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950

Spaces and Institutional Structures


Katherine Rawling (Royal Holloway): Asylum Snapshots: Institutional Photographic
Practices and Patient Images at Holloway Sanatorium, Surrey, 1880-1910

By the late nineteenth century, photography was becoming increasingly accessible, used to record an infinite number of situations and environments. Commercial photography studios populated the streets of Britain whilst amateur domestic photography was gaining in popularity, with individuals creating personal albums of family and friends. The photographic portrait therefore was becoming an increasingly common cultural and material object, within reach of many and recognisable by all. But almost since its invention, photography was used in medical, scientific and institutional contexts. By the late nineteenth century, the patient photograph had become an established part of institutional life. Hospital and asylum patients were photographed in a variety of ways and for many different reasons; to catalogue and record, to identify, to illustrate, to teach and to explain. Being photographed was also an important part of the institutionalisation process all patients had to undergo. Through patient photographs the individual was ‘named’ and identified as a patient or, in some cases, as an inmate.

However, photographic practices transgressed boundaries between the home and the institution with fascinating results. In posing subjects as if for a conventional portrait, asylum authorities created a patient image of distorted ‘normality’ in which the subject appeared visually ‘normal’ yet could not be so. By examining patient photographs from the case books of Holloway Sanatorium in Surrey, this paper will suggest ways in which the photographic conventions of the domestic, private family album informed medico-scientific institutional patient photographs. By identifying the often surprising similarities between institutional and non-institutional images it is suggested that the photographic conventions from outside the asylum walls were brought inside. Patient photographs reveal the extent to which the camera was ‘at home’ in both the asylum and the parlour.





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