Monday, July 5, 2010


Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Photographs by Christopher Payne, Essay by Oliver Sacks

This coffee-table collection of industrial-therapeutic dishabille—70 abandoned asylums in 30 states, photographed over six years—is as gorgeous and meditative as it is harrowing. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, nearly 300 palatial mental-health institutions—the result of Dorothea Dix’s humanitarian pleas and Thomas Story Kirkbride’s enlightened plans—dotted the U.S. countryside, bucolically housing half a million souls. By the 1950s, however, psychotropic drugs, court decisions, and policy-based deinstitutionalization had begun to radically reshape the mental-health landscape. Today, all but a handful of these “monuments to civic pride, built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians who envisioned the asylums as places of refuge, therapy, and healing,” have been abandoned or repurposed. What remains, writes Sacks in the book’s introduction, are “ruins” that “offer a mute and heartbreaking testimony both to the pain of those with severe mental illness and to the once-heroic structures we built to try to assuage that pain.” Each of Payne’s elegiac prints—whether of magisterial facades or peeling interiors, in muted color or matter-of-fact black and white—captures the sense of loss that lingers.

From The Atlantic