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AsylumReview - Asylum
Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
by Christopher Payne
MIT Press, 2009
Review by Christian Perring
Apr 13th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 15)

The history of the large state mental hospitals is fast disappearing.  The buildings are crumbling, records are decaying, and those who lived and worked in them at their height in the 1940s to the 1960s are now getting to the end of their lives.  I recently when on a tour of Kings Park Psychiatric Center, which used to be a huge complex of buildings for mental patients mainly from Brooklyn, and it was striking that the guide didn't know what many of the buildings had been used for, because there was no detailed history, and different people had different memories.  It was also striking that for hospitals with a long history, buildings got used for different purposes at different times.  Sometimes local historical societies keep records and even publish books, such as Leo Polaski's excellent volume The Farm Colonies  about Long Island mental hospitals, (possibly still available through the Kings Park Heritage Museum), but it can be difficult to find out about such books.  Often it is illegal to enter the buildings themselves because they are dangerous, and the people who do enter and take photos may have questionable motives.  For example, the Opacity website has many pictures of old New England asylums and the Opacity Forum has discussion and photographs by many other people who break rules to take pictures of old abandoned buildings.  From there, you can find links to other sites, such as the hospital section of Urban Travel which has pictures of hospitals from many different countries.  These sites have many wonderful pictures, but still one wonders to what extent the photographers want to record this history of an era and to what extent they just want to play on themes of decay and madness.  For example, in a thread on pictures from the Hudson River State Hospital at Opacity, there is praise for a picture of a turkey vulture standing on the ruins, and it is a dramatic picture, yet it also seems gratuitously morbid.  There's little money available to keep a record of, let alone preserve, these old hospitals, and so there's an argument for being grateful to those who are willing to do it for free, even if they break rules and may be doing it because they like spooky old buildings. 

That's the context in which I look at Christopher Payne's Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals.  It is a collection of photographs taken in the last few years of the outsides and insides of old buildings.  There is a very useful five page essay by Payne about the history of mental hospitals in the USA that will be essential reading for anyone who knows nothing about that history.  Still, looking through these pictures of hospitals from all over the country, I still wish for much more contextualizing. Seeing all these large buildings and decaying rooms and hallways is interesting in itself, but it would mean much more if there was more information about what you were looking at.  The only information we are given is in the titles, which are of the form "Christmas decoration, Traverse City State Hospital, Traverse City, Michigan," or "Typical ward, Fergus Falls State Hospital, Fergus Falls, Minnesota."  It would be difficult to give the history of all the different places in one book, but it would be a feasible project for a website similar to that for The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.  Maybe someone will be inspired by Payne's book to suggest a collaboration with him.

Nevertheless, Asylum has many powerful images that carry meaning even with only a little knowledge of what happened at these hospitals.  Payne does not shy away from aesthetics: these images are created to be dramatic.  Some are in black and white, apparently to emphasize the gothic nature of some buildings or to highlight the drab institutional feel of the places.  The color pictures are warmer, although Payne balances that with some desolate elements.  For example, in his picture of Matteawan State Hospital, in Beacon, New York, he foregrounds the razor wire around the fence that is there because the place has been converted to Fishkill Correctional Facility.  Payne also finds beauty or some elements to make his pictures interesting: his picture of the doctor's village at Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island shows some rather dull red brick houses surrounded by overgrown weeds, but he places a tree in the foreground with branches reaching from left to right across the image, giving it some energy. 

For the insides of buildings, he uses natural light.  The lobby of the Mead Building of Yankton State Hospital in South Dakota would be impressive enough with its marble staircase, but with the sunlight coming in from a window, reflecting off a pool of water on the floor, and illuminating the debris of fallen wall plaster on the stairs and floor, we get a strong sense of how the place has lost so much of its former glory.  The images near the end of the book showing artwork, theatres, sports grounds, a bowling lane, a gym, a barbershop, beauty salons, and even a TV studio have their own power, bringing to life the extent to which these hospitals were a world of their own for the patients.  The pictures of straightjackets, a morgue, coffins, crematorium urns, and graveyards carry their own obvious heavy significance.  The book ends with an Afterword by Payne in which he describes the genesis of his project and some of his own feelings about it, and because of its personal nature, this is the most powerful part of the work. 

Asylum is a much less theoretical book than Carla Yanni's The Architecture of Madness and is contemporary, as opposed to the historical record in America's Care of the Mentally Ill by William Baxter and David Hathcox.  The pictures here are more carefully composed, and are taken under rather different circumstances, than those on Opacity; while I am reluctant to say that Payne's are much better than those of the more amateur photographers, they provide a different sort of record of these hospitals.  This is a valuable collection which should be of interest to anyone wanting to know more about the history of the treatment of the mentally ill in the USA.


Link: Christopher Payne website


© 2010 Christian Perring        


Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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