In a Dark Wood: Images of Middlewood Hospital Across a Century
A few years ago, we collaborated with Archive Sheffield and Professor Brendan Stone on a project calledIn a Dark Wood: Words and Images of Mental Distress Across a Century for Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind.
The collaboration explored changing perceptions of mental distress/illness by drawing both on contemporary accounts and on the photographic archive of South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum (later Middlewood Hospital) in Sheffield. A collection of large-plate glass negatives, kept at Sheffield City Archives, and almost certainly unseen in the last hundred years, offer a powerful window into a different era of medical care.
The history of photography in mental hospitals is a long one, dating back to the work of Hugh Diamond in the mid-19th century. Diamond was a doctor, photographer, and the Superintendent of Surrey County Asylum. The practice soon became widespread, and was based on the idea that the photographic image could provide an accurate and scientific insight into ‘insanity’. In Diamond’s influential 1856 paper ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity’ he claimed that the use of photography negated the need “to use the vague terms which denote a difference in the degree of mental suffering”, and that photographic images indicated “the exact point which has been reached in the scale of unhappiness”.
The photographing of patients was predicated on a desire to ameliorate suffering. Nevertheless, what may strike us now is the inadequacy of an approach which focused on surface appearance. As we look at these almost 100 year-old images from the old Middlewood Hospital, we might reflect on the stories and voices of those we witness, and wonder how many were untold, unheard. There is no identifying information included with the images, nor any explanation as to why they were taken.
These anonymised images were presented at Bank Street Arts alongside contemporary audio reflections on the nature of illness/distress and care from people currently living with mental health problems. The combination of images and sound represented a kind of dialogue across time which provoked thought about differing perceptions of mental health, as well as drawing out resonances.
The original glass plate negatives have been carefully cleaned and packaged by the Conservation team at Sheffield Archives and digital copies added to Picture Sheffield: https://tinyurl.com/y9vaq5mp