As a photographer at the Science Museum I work with a vast array of objects from within the collection. In early January a loan out request was made for photography of human specimens in the form of tattooed skin. Restricted access, as well as the requirement for museums to have a public display license for human remains, means that requests like these are really rare. The nature of the object, its preservation techniques and its classification as a bio-hazard all meant that this was going to be no ordinary afternoon in the studio. These tattoos are part of the Wellcome Collection, and are the largest collection of human skins in the world, numbering over 300 individual tattoo fragments, all dating from the 19th century. The preserved skins in the collection were purchased from a single 'mysterious' individual. The seller called himself Dr La Valette, but there was no registered medical professional by that name at that time. In all likelihood the name was a pseudonym, the ‘Doctor’ would have been wary of revealing his true identity for a couple of reasons;
A scandal surrounding the farming and use of tattoos to make souvenir items at a Paris medical facility
A second scandal at the time surrounding the experimental removal of tattoos from inmates of the La Sante prison in Paris.
“… whilst today the focus is often on the artistic value or iconography of tattoos, during the time when they were being collected , scholars were more interested in deciphering their meaning, and trying to establish a taxonomy of symbols that could tell them something about the individual’s usually ‘criminal’ psychology”. (1). In the 1920s, when these tattoos were acquired by the Wellcome Collection many scholars believed that tattoos represented worrying signs of criminal proclivity and degeneration within the European population.
The collection of these tattoos would have been done during autopsy as skin decomposes very quickly. In most cases the skin would have been cut away from the cadaver using a scalpel, a quick and simple process in itself. The tattoos would have been preserved using a dry preservation method. The skin would be scraped on the reverse to remove connective tissue and then pinned out to dry. The characteristic ‘frilling’, that we can see, around the edges occurs when the skin shrinks during the drying process. Once dry the skin would be treated using glycerin or formalin alcohol. These preservation processes mean that extreme care needs to be taken when handling the tattoos. As with all object photography protective gloves must be worn. I also needed to wear a face mask to limit the inhalation of toxic chemicals used in skin preservation.
I collected the tattoos from their storage cabinets and moved them in a sealed corex box to the studio here at Blythe House. I had already installed a heavy duty portable extractor fan in the studio which sucked the fumes away. To limit the time the tattoos were exposed to the air I set up my lighting using a dummy object of roughly the same size and tonal range. I used small sections of inert foam to prop the tattoos up from the matt grey background which I curved on the shooting table to create a mini cove. This raising of the skin meant I was able to create a drop shadow around the front of the tattoo to make a more pleasing 3D image. I also used the soft fall off of the lighting levels to create a background which faded to deep black in the distance, a technique I often use to emphasise depth in an image. Using the Mamiya and 120mm lens I shot several exposures of each in order to focus stack them afterwards in Photoshop.
The resulting images show the depth and clarity of the tattoos, fine detail, including hairs on the skin and the intricate work involved in them.
The three tattoos are off to the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall.
All in all, a successful afternoon!
(1). Dr. Gemma Angel, Tattoo historian and anthropologist.