Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Photographs by Christopher Payne, Essay by Oliver Sacks (The MIT Press, 2009)
(All photos in this post are copyright to Christopher Payne, used under “fair use” provisions)
I felt very lucky to have had a chance last winter to see a nearby gallery show of the extraordinary work of New York-based Christopher Payne, maybe America’s foremost photographer of “disappearing histories” as the headline of a recent Payne interview called it. I was already familiar with his work via “Asylum”, since the coffee table book with its austere cover shot of a white straitjacket hanging on a pale blue wall caught my eye in Barnes & Noble a few years back. Payne shoots in traditional large-format film and makes digital C-prints from there. These sensitively-rendered images of eerily abandoned state hospitals are plenty impressive in the book but mind-blowing in a gallery, where some of the vertical prints were some four feet high.
Fascination with shuttered asylums, as well as the urban-explorer impulse with which it overlaps, has really taken off in the Internet Age, a phenomena I explored in my 3-part “The Pale Beyond” series (see it in the “Categories” section to the right or in “Related Posts” below). There are many different, and often excellent, websites featuring the work of people braver than myself who find their way into these abandoned buildings and come away with evocative photos that earn gushing praise from followers and lots of “oh-wow-that’s-creepy” reactions on the comments scroll.
All that is fine. We’re a society in love with the macabre and the mysterious, and many of these buildings fit the bill. A lot of them were built in the Victorian era, with gothic spires that came to seem sinister once conditions there deteriorated. But Payne’s approach to this subject is different and refreshing. He was trained as an architect and had never visited a state hospital before 2002, when a friend who knew of his interest in industrial archaeology told him about Pilgrim State on Long Island, a 10,000-bed asylum on a 1,000-acre campus. By that date, Pilgrim was operating to a tiny fraction of its original capacity (while hundreds of others had fully closed). Payne in his foreword admits to being “dumbstruck” by the monumental scale and the landscaped setting; it was the start of a six-year project that would eventually lead him to dozens of these mammoth institutions.
Weston State Hospital, West Virginia. If it weren’t for the bars on the window, you could almost mistake it for Downton Abbey. Payne’s methods did not generally include trespassing. Instead, he went through official channels and found that once he showed a sincere interest in the architecture and history of these properties, he was usually granted full access.
But Payne saw beyond “the superstitions and third-hand horror stories” that these places inspire and using his trained eye noted their “outward similarity to great resort hotels of the era.” A verdant setting and dignified atmosphere, along with occupational therapy and the arts, figured prominently in the planning of the early hospitals built in the latter part of the 1800s. Such institutions were often proudly self-sustaining and Payne has numerous views of on-site farms, greenhouses, vocational workshops, a fish hatchery, etc. There’s even a shot of a kitchen in Pennsylvania’s Danville State with five enormous vats that were solely used for making sauerkraut. This original idea of the therapeutic value of work and culture, and its palliative effect on mental illness, later when out of fashion.
Eventually psychotropic drugs came onto the scene, but as author/neurologist Oliver Sacks asserts in the book’s introduction, a well-intentioned notion of patient’s rights replaced the “normalizing” effect of the work that was now seen as exploitation and left them with little more to do than to watch television. The resulting warehouse effect left us with the “snakepit” image that most associate with state hospitals. Sacks’ essay, while certainly astute and filled with first-hand knowledge (he worked at Bronx State Hospital for 25 years), does seem a little rosy at time—for instance, there is no mention of the controversial (over)use of electroshock therapy. Still, the idea of these grand old asylums being a place where one could be both “mad and safe” is compelling considering the hasty deinstitutionalization that started in the 70s and 80s. The lack of sufficient transitional services—and medication that controlled the worst impulses of serious mental illness but left users unmotivated—burdened the U.S. with a large homeless population that later economic problems only exacerbated.
The melancholy beauty of Payne’s photography, and his ability to sense the unlucky lives that played out there, are masterful from the first page to the poignant postscript of this amazing book. That closing section is a Payne-penned text and photographic record of the 2006 demolition of the iconic Danvers State Hospital, the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium and later the Arkham Asylum of the Batman universe. (Only the façade of the main administration building was saved for the subsequent condo complex). Readers of the previous installments know of my focus on DSH—I grew up three miles away—and it turns out that Payne has a personal connection as well. He grew up in Boston and had relatives in Danvers. Whenever visiting them, he saw its hilltop profile as an “ancient, far-away castle” from the window of the family car driving down I-95. (The parallel and closer U.S. Route One passed directly below the slope of the hospital’s perimeter farmland). Payne writes of his reluctance to speak regretfully of the demolition to workers but they were not unsympathetic: they realize they are knocking down a historic and unique structure, one to be succeeded by “a place, just like any other.” As Payne puts it, “How ironic it was that so much care and effort was put into a structure intended solely for society’s outcasts.” Even keeping in mind the mistakes that followed, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a return to that kind of commitment to the more unfortunate among us anytime soon, if ever.
Also recommended by Christopher Payne is North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City. Sitting amid strong East River cross-currents near Riker’s Island and Hell Gate, the island was long a site for hospitals and infirmaries (its most famous patient was Typhoid Mary)as well as the infamous 1904 General Slocum steamboat disaster, when a combination burning/sinking killed 1000 people. Payne’s vivid photographs of this long-uninhabited spit of land, depicts a sort of slow-motion battle between nature and the built environment.