The Somnambulists

Princess Tolstoya, 1800-1873
Edinburgh-based photographer Joanna Kane’s latest book, The Somnambulists, is a series of rather unconventional portraits. While at first glance the images appear to be intimate studies of various sleeping figures they are, in fact, recent photographs of life and death masks that are between 150 and 200 years old.

Princess
Princess Tolstoya, 1800-1873

Edinburgh-based photographer Joanna Kane’s latest book, The Somnambulists, is a series of rather unconventional portraits. While at first glance the images appear to be intimate studies of various sleeping figures they are, in fact, recent photographs of life and death masks that are between 150 and 200 years old.

Unknown Woman
Unknown woman

The casts belong to a collection housed at the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (phrenology is the study of how the contours of the head affect psychological attributes). The book’s appendix details the identities of the casts – a Russian princess, shown top, sits alongside a series of unknown figures, for example – and, if known, whether the mask has captured the subject alive or dead (in both cases shown above it’s unclear).

It’s an eerily beautiful body of work: coming face to face with Keats, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge (who all feature and are shown, below) is strangely compelling, particularly as the casts all pre-date photography.

Eustace
Eastache Bellinore Bellin, 1773-1835. This cast is apparently “labelled as a death mask,
although the intent expression and tightly screwed up eyes are characteristic of a life mask.”

Cautious Woman
Unknown Woman, a “cautious type” ie possibly suicidal

Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834, life mask

Keats
John Keats, 1795-1821, life mask

Wordsworth
William Wordsworth, 1770-1850, life mask made in 1815

Blake
William Blake, 1757-1827, life mask made in 1823

From Kane’s introduction to The Somnambulists:

“The life or death mask can be considered the sculptural analogue of the photographic portrait. Both suggest direct traces from life, involve positive and negative, and evoke a mysterious connection between living, breathing subject and captured image…

In creating the portraits, the aim has been to take these subjects out of the categories and hierarchies of the phrenological collection. My interest has been in transforming them from disembodied scientific specimens into photographically embodied images of individual men and women.”

Images from The Somnambulists are currently on show at
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Queen Street, Edinburgh
January 22 – April 4

The Somnambulists is published by Dewi Lewis at £19.99

More of Kane’s work at www.joannakane.co.uk

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