Omni Daily Crush: "Asylum"

Asylum is not exactly an easy book to love. In fact, my most powerful emotion when it comes to thinking about mental hospitals--and thinking about looking past their gates--is a deep and fearful fascination. But I love this book for its bravery. In the face of something so many of us don't understand, Christopher Payne shows a remarkable vision for the stories these old, majestic, mysterious buildings tell. His pictures document a whole other society that most people never witnessed.

I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, not far from the Worcester State Hospital (photographed in this book). That building loomed large in my imagination as a child. As with many of the buildings you'll see here, it is an imperial structure, gothic, austere, palpably creepy, situated on a large tract of land that is within walking distance of our house. Christopher Payne also had a geographical connection to one of these hospitals--he devotes the afterword to the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, the purported model for the fictional Arkham Asylum of Gotham City. That the hospitals--more than 250 of them across the United States, and home to more than half a million patients--were designed to be part of (though set apart from) local communities is just one example of their paradox. (And I really mean local: there's one photograph of a Pennsylvania hospital--it must have been Pennsylvania Dutch country--that had a room of sauerkraut vats.)

Payne's photographs are intelligently organized, beginning with shots of facades, front gates, and entryways, moving to eerily similar pictures of wards and bathrooms, and from there, on to the larger community and industry that different hospitals engendered. State asylums were entirely self-sufficient and enclosed communities. Many of them operated farms and had their own sources of water and power. Patients made their own clothes; built and operated machinery; cooked, cleaned, and cared for each other, all as a means of therapy. We can't know, looking at these pictures, if the reality of that life was as transcendental as it sounds, but the images are certainly revelatory. Speaking of revelations, I have to say I marveled particularly at 1) his "styling" of straightjackets--one shot of several jackets in different shades could have been ripped from a J. Crew catalog; 2) a picture of a closet full of bedsprings; and 3) a remarkable shot of an observation window in what I presume is an isolation room, taken from the inside looking out. (Shiver.)

In the afterword, Payne notes "how ironic it was that so much care and effort was put into a structure intended solely for society's outcasts." I would also say it is startling, because the reality of being "locked up" is just as apparent in these pictures as the architectural bias for wide, open space. In no place is this more clear than the images of the wards: all the doors stand open (locks in full view), light spilling in neat, symmetrical shafts into the hallway, though the doors would almost always have been shut. Looking at the exteriors, too, causes double-takes: massive, sophisticated buildings, intricate with handiwork... and bars (and in other images, chain link). From the outside looking in, locks and bars and caged stairwells convey danger. But for the insane, were those locks actually keys to finding peace and sanctuary? Looking at Asylum, the answer must have been yes, at least initially, but it's impossible to ignore how these institutions, so like citadels in their construction, were at heart quite vulnerable. --Anne

Recommended for readers of Oliver Sacks (who writes the introduction here) and Witold Rybczynski's A Clearing in the Distance, as well as those who appreciate Victorian-era American architecture or photojournalism

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Posted by: Speed dating London | Friday October 23, 2009 at 3:49 AM

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