Secret Histories | Marco Spinner: A Madman’s Tale

Mental illness is one of the last wild frontiers of modern life. It is here within the brain that something foul is afoot, something that has caused circuits to rewire in a manner that compels a vicious cycle of distortion, misery, and destruction. Over the past two hundred years, doctors and scientists have tried to break this cycle through countless means, from locking people up in insane asylums to chemical lobotomies. Despite (or perhaps, because of) these treatments, mental illness carries a stigma that few can bear on top of the sickness itself.


With A Madman’s Tale  (Kehrer Verlag), Marco Spinner aims to show mental illness from the inside out, using the photograph as a means to mediate the space between what is sane and what is not. The photos for the book were made during a stay in a closed psychiatric ward. Working on the series helped Spinner hold on to the idea of “sanity in delusion”, a sensation that becomes increasingly slippery with every turn of the page.


Spinners’ highly pixelated photographs are the first indication that we’ve entered this new frontier, where the very act of seeing is not quite fully registering. Spinner than rotates individual images by 90 or 180 degrees, creating a more intense experience, one fraught with disassociation, confusion, and uncertainty. What is known is not so known when it is no longer as we have come to expect, yet Spinner’s photographs remind us, it’s not exactly unknown so much as it is strange, estranged, deranged even.


Spinner’s photographs reveal the bizarre world that lies beneath the banal, showing us that mental illness is not only a disconnection from rational thinking, it is a way of thinking its very own. Things become possible, but they are never quite certain. It is this visual metaphor that intensifies as the book goes on, as we are torn between what we think we know and what is actually going on.


As Wolfgang Zurborn writes in the book’s only text, “Although the pictures taken using a mobile phone follow the chronology of his stay in a clinic, they do not tell a linear story. It is not a question of creating a document recording the course of his illness or the conditions prevailing in a particular psychiatric clinic… he is more concerned with finding evidence of his own existence within the actual process of creating an image. For him, this consciousness of self—precisely during those moments of being utterly at the mercy of others in a locked-ward psychiatric clinic—is of crucial significance and, in the final analysis, the basis upon which it is possible to once again enter into a constructive dialogue with the world that surrounds him.”


At 4.3 x 5.5 inches in size, A Madman’s Tale reveals a truth about mental illness, about the density of the experience in such a small space, and the way in which this intensity quickly overwhelms and reframes perception and meaning. The book is a rare opportunity to delve into the great unknown, the space where the mind has powers few understand, let alone withstand when the illness hits home.

All Photos ©Marco Spinner, Courtesy of Kehrer Verlag

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.