House Full of Pearls

Alzheimer's Philadelphia 2002                                                                                        Zoe Strauss made this photograph titled “Alzheimer’s, Philadelphia” in 2007.  The image is an exemplary representation of Strauss’s body of work exhibited currently at The International Center of Photography.  Strauss DECIDED to make this photograph, she didn’t look away.  This typifies her unflinching commitment to not only photographing but EXPERIENCING the world around her.  She engages herself with subjects many would turn away from.                                                                                                                    The following photographs in this curation are historical and contemporary examples of other photographers documenting mental illness.  Some are clinical, some beautiful; all are haunting and force us to consider a topic many would rather not.  The title “House Full of Pearls” refers to a late 19th century account of a man swimming fully clothed in the middle of a frigid channel in California.  Two men found him floating on his back and pulled him in to their rowboat.  When asked what he was doing, the soaked man replied that he was looking for his sister who had drowned in the channel after a party in his honor.  The two men took the man to the authorities who then questioned him some more.  He told them that his sister lived at the bottom of the water in a house full of pearls.  The examiner asked if the man’s sister wanted him to join her at the bottom of the water and the man replied that yes!  His sister was very excited for him to come live with her.  After being examined by physicians, the man was admitted to the Stockton State Mental Asylum-California’s first psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with acute melancholia triggered by the trauma of witnessing his sister’s death.

hugh diamond                                                                                                Hugh W. Diamond was a psychiatrist and a photographer.   In 1852 he presented a series of photographs depicting “the types of insanity”.  The type displayed in the photograph above is “melancholia passing into mania”.  At this moment in time, psychiatrists believed they could study the physical characteristics of a person to identify mental illness.  I chose this particular photograph primarily because of the title.  The woman is still, and reveals very little.  Her face looks blotchy, and her hands look rough, suggesting hard physical work. The background is dismal.  Deciding that this is the picture of “melancholia passing into mania” was a stretch to say the least.

henry hering                                                                                    Henry Hering was a studio photographer with society connections when he was commissioned in 1857 to photograph patients at Bethlem Royal Hospital in London-an asylum notorious for its inhumane treatment of patients and origin of the word “bedlam” as a synonym for madness.  The woman in this photograph sits in front of a neutral setting.  It is not readily apparent that she is a patient in a mental hospital.  Her formal dress gives her an air of propriety.  Her hands are clasped somewhat anxiously and her expression is weary.   Her inner struggle is apparent but not exploited by the photographer.  We are able to feel compassion for her.

henri dagonet                                                                                      Henri Dagonet was a French psychiatrist, and one of the first physicians to use photographs to illustrate a medical textbook (1876).  This image shows four individuals suffering from what Dagonet called “ lypémanie”, derived from the greek roots for “sadness” and “madness”.  Like Hugh W. Diamond, Dagonet used photography to classify and diagnose mental illness.  His photographs are generally very clinical with harsh light and close positioning of the camera.  The subjects frequently look menacing or frightening as is the case with the gentleman in the lower left image.

a eisenstaedt                                                           Albert Eisenstaedt photographed Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island for an article in Life Magazine in 1938. The caption for this photograph was “Continuous-flow bath is the best method for calming excited mental cases. With their bodies greased, the patients can remain in the baths for hours, gradually fall asleep.”  I find this photograph and it’s caption interesting because it suggests both care and utter neglect for psychiatric patients.

herbert gehr                                                         Herbert Gehr made this photograph at a mental institution in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1949.  The light in this photograph illuminates an almost surreal scene.  The woman in the foreground appears to be making the table levitate with very little effort.  It isn’t clear if she is a patient or a care provider.  Her shoes provide no clue as they’re not suitable for work or institutional living.  The strangeness of this affects the whole picture, and cues that something isn’t right.  The woman on the left faces the wall as though she is being punished, and a third woman stares out the window bringing to mind a longing to be somewhere else.  On the right, a chair extends out of the frame, suggesting that this scene continues and is not an isolated situation.

d arbus                                                              From 1969-1971 Diane Arbus photographed what were then known as “residences for the mentally retarded”.  I love this photograph for the quiet affection and joy it illustrates.

m ellen mark                                                                 In 1976 Mary Ellen Mark was given permission to live in the women’s security ward of the Oregon State Hospital where the movie ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST was filmed.  She and Karen Folger Jacobs, a writer and social scientist spent 36 days on the ward photographing and interviewing the women who lived there.  The fact that Mary Ellen Mark lived with patients marks a departure in psychiatric photography and signifies changing attitudes about mental illness and treatment.

lu nan                                                                                      This photograph was made by Lu Nan in Shanxi, China in 1990 and appears in his book Forgotten People.  The caption for this image reads “Miao Yujiu, 33 years old.  He has been mentally ill for 9 years.  One of his hands has been chained for four years.  For the first five years of his illness, his family sent him to the hospital six times for treatment by selling their property.  However, he didn’t improve and so his treatment was discontinued.  He is being chained as he has a tendency to destroy things.”  This photograph sheds light on the fact that communities around the world have grappled with how to effectively treat mentally ill people.

d capella                                                                                   Inspired by a 1973 experiment in which a psychologist and seven other people feigned hearing voices and approached different mental hospitals across the country, Dafne Capella was compelled to explore presumptions about mental illness and what we SEE (or think we see) in an individual.  In 2007, Capella spent six months photographing the interns and staff at Santa Lucia Public Mental Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  She then self published a small newspaper titled “26 patients, 1 employee, and 1 visitor at Santa Lucia Mental Institute”.

j lutz                                                                                       Josh Lutz explores his mother’s mental illness in his book Hesitating Beauty (2013).  The book is a mix of family archives, imagined correspondence, and his own photographs.  This book is beautiful and painful to look through.  I love that Lutz creates a visual representation of his experience with mental illness but that the images are not necessarily documentations of actual things that happened.  His story telling is so achingly personal and yet it’s easy to identify with.


When I was a kid our family didn’t talk about “mental illness”.  My grandfather lived in a county mental institution and we were told it was because he was nervous.  He seemed more sad than nervous but he was definitely unhappy.  His eyes were sad, his face, expressionless and slack-almost like gravity was pulling at him especially hard.  We visited him on Sunday afternoons.  We brought popcorn we’d made for him with plenty of butter and extra salt.  And we brought butterscotch candies for Charlie, the sweet and affectionate hunched over old man who wore red suspenders and spoke like a child.  After two security doors and a sign-in desk we’d meet my grandpa in the canteen.  We’d buy Pepsi from the vending machine and sit at a small table.   Sometimes my grandpa would ask us questions , but usually he was quiet.  And sometimes he would cry.  My mom would carry along the conversation, sharing cheery updates about our family, talking about the weather, asking questions about my grandpa’s craft classes.

After a while my mom would excuse my brother and me.  There was a game room with a ping pong table and puzzles and board games.  We made it a point to take a circuitous path there so we could walk around first.  I hate to admit it, but this place both repulsed and fascinated us.  Many of the residents were obviously not well.  It wasn’t uncommon to hear hysterical wailing coming from a particular room.  One woman paced the hallway every day for years and had worn a path in the carpet.  Sometimes somebody would walk down the hall with no clothes on.  There was one man though, that really captured our imagination.  He always sat in the lobby, and if you didn’t know better you would think he was a visitor.  He wore a suit and tie and was ALWAYS reading the newspaper.  My brother and I couldn’t believe that he belonged there.  He LOOKED so normal.  He looked PROFESSIONAL.  We invented stories about what mistake could have happened to land him in such a place.  We talked about what it would take to get him out of there.  Who could be called to get this guy out?  It didn’t make sense.  He was reading the newspaper!  We were indignant on his behalf.

After a couple rounds of ping pong my brother and I would return to the canteen so we could say our goodbyes and leave.   It was an enormous relief to get in the car but even as a child I remember feeling conflicted.   I felt sad for everyone who had to live there, but I felt so grateful that we did not.  I worried that I might get “nervous” like my grandpa, or that maybe my mom would.  She was usually quiet on the long drive home.  My brother and I would discuss which of our favorite residents we saw, who we didn’t, and any strange things that happened.   We would tell our mom about the newspaper man who was STILL there, and then, pretty soon we’d both fall into quiet as well.

Of course, now I know that you can’t assume anything about a person based on appearances.  This is especially true with mental illness and is often a reason people who are mentally ill don’t receive the help they need.  They don’t LOOK like they are suffering.  The photograph I have posted above reflects this idea as well as the idea that the people we pass in life can have a lasting impression and stay with us.


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