The use of psychiatric photography to identify people is rooted in physiognomy, of which phrenology was considered to be a variant. Through the process of cataloguing and identifying, physiognomy attempted to prove how the patient’s features revealed the flowering of deep elements of madness. The patient was then turned into an exemplum of his diagnostic category.
The use of photography in the field of psychiatry was fostered by Diamond, who believed that photographic portraits could provide a scientific basis for a diagnosis: “Photographers seize the outward manifestations of every passion with indisputable precision, thus proving the well-known likeness between a sick mind and the organs and features of the body”.
Augusto Tamburini (1848-1919) was the first that used psychiatric photography in Italy, in San Lazzaro mental hospital, Reggio Emilia. The Italian psychiatrist aimed to “permanently fix the physiognomy of the patients in the various phases of their illness in order to establish a topic for the semeiotic of mental disorders”.
from “Chiaroscuri. Sui rapporti tra fotografia e psichiatria”, Cosimo Schinaia, Il volto della follia, Skira
Pictures from the Archive of the ex San Lazzaro Mental Hospital, Reggio Emilia - Ausl RE