Portraits of Insane Women

Rylander’s Two Ways of Life was made up of 36 separate negatives stitched together in the way Vernon digitally merged different images to make the novelty film stills for his newlyweds. The photograph had been controversial in 1857 as it depicted orgiastic scenes involving bare-breasted women. Warren worried she would ask him which way of life depicted in the photograph he would prefer – the morally constipated, stern way, or the way of drugs and naked lasciviousness. He had no adequate response and would be inclined to say a little of both, so he hoped to God she had read the same book about picking people up in galleries and knew to avoid direct questioning.

‘Sometimes I feel,’ the woman said, ‘that my life has been lots of separate exposures blended together. No unity. It’s like I am seeing the world through a giant fly’s eye with lots of different octagonal viewpoints.’

‘I know what you mean,’ Warren said, unable to imagine what she was talking about.
The next display was a set of medical photos called Portraits of Insane Women, images that seemed to Warren exploitative and made him feel greasy. But Becky liked them more than anything else.

‘Look at their faces. In those days people knew how to be insane. You had proper mad people. Not like now. Do you remember how street people used to mutter? You don’t get that now. What happened to muttering? It was like a different language – burbling, rasping, full of passion and grit. I used to like to hear them muttering. When I was a kid a woman used to follow me round the supermarket softly singing and tittering. Another used to swear. Where are they now?’

She bent her neck for a new angle. ‘You can see she is authentically deranged. The hollowness behind the eyes, the twisting of the mouth. Mad people have very thick hair, have you noticed? Do you think they have special shampoo? In asylums, I mean?’

Warren thought about it. ‘I expect that they have a lot of special ways to care for the mentally ill nowadays.’

Becky nodded her head vigorously. ‘I will buy a postcard in the gift shop.’

Warren was concerned about her attitude to the insane women, but he felt that these attitudes were something he could work on. He was out there now. You had to work with the materials you were given. That’s what he’d read.

In the café Becky and Warren talked about their lives. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend and had been visiting the gallery for months. Warren was the first normal person she’d got chatting to, so when he proposed his plan she was happy to agree.

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