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Hospital Snapshots 7

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Last month’s post considered clothing in the Hering photographs and the opportunities it offered for patients to express some individuality. The gestures, position and objects surrounding the sitter could also further this sense of personality.

It is probably wise to assume that, to some extent at least, the subjects were posed. Within the limits imposed by time and asylum life, each image is carefully crafted. In common with Hering’s mainstream work and in the tradition of much portrait painting, the sitter is presented with no distraction for the viewer, anything additional serving a specific purpose. Over half the Bethlem photographs merely portray the patient. Even here, it is interesting to speculate how many adopted natural poses without direction from Hering. Also, to what extent patients had a view of how they wished to represent themselves. The studied indifference suggested by the pose of John Payne (see Hospital Snapshot) is likely, given what we know about the patient, to be entirely of his own volition.

The sitters would not have known Hering at the outset and we might consider how comfortable they would feel being photographed, and what level of negotiation took place. In her photograph, Eliza Camplin ‘made some objection to her own dress, which she evidently thought not very becoming; and she at length made it a condition of her sitting quietly that she should be represented with a book in her hand. The book, indeed, was held upside down; but it did quite as well.’1 It would appear that she felt able to enter into some conversation with the photographer and also had her own ideas about what a sitter should be doing when photographed.

A number of the photographs employ the device of having the subject seemingly interrupted from a particular task, adding to the sense of naturalism; the viewer has been allowed privileged access. It is a device that Hering employed with his society figures. Elizabeth Thew was admitted to Bethlem in 1852 after being tried for the murder of her two-month-old infant. Here, her carefully parted hair and cap, her tidy appearance and half smile present a more calm and demure image than her history might suggest. She is meeting our gaze, having seemingly looked up from her needlework.

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Setting and objects might also allude to more specific interests. During his time at Bethlem, Edward Oxford acquired some skill in house painting and offered to paint some of the wards. In Hering’s portrait, (Hospital Snapshots 6) he is standing as if taking a break, having just perhaps come down his ladder. The paint pot rests on the step and the brush he holds has already been used. The paint looks about to drip. The pose is an informal one; he appears relaxed, assured, his body loose. In reality, of course, this portrait is no less carefully crafted. Props such as the ladder were also practical, providing a stabilising point for a sitter who would need to remain still for some time to take account of exposure times.

Props could also be used to indicate the previous occupation. Here we see George Johnston, a merchant ship captain, his profession identified, in the tradition of occupational photography, with his sextant. He presents something of a slight figure. He is not looking to the camera but up at something unseen, perhaps the heavens whose stars would have guided his ship.