A Terrible Thing To Waste
New Book Profiles Asylums
By Magazine editors | Online Only | Oct. 12, 2009
Photographs by Chris Payne
For more than half the nation's history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape. From the mid-19th century to the early 20th, more than 250 institutions for the insane were built throughout the United States; by 1948 they housed over half a million patients. But over the next 30 years, with the introduction of psychotropic drugs and policy shifts toward community-based care, patient populations declined dramatically, leaving many of these massive buildings neglected and abandoned. (In 1999, the National Trust named Four National Historic Landmark Hospitals in New York to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.)
Photographer Chris Payne spent six years exploring these institutions, visiting 70 hospitals in 30 states. The results of his journey can be found in his latest book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals ($40, MIT Press, http://mitpress.mit.edu). Through his lens we see splendid, palatial exteriors and crumbling interiors—chairs stacked against walls with peeling paint in a grand hallway; brightly colored toothbrushes still hanging on a rack; stacks of suitcases, never packed for the trip home. We also see how the hospitals functioned as self-contained communities, where almost everything of necessity—including food, water, power, and even clothing and shoes—was produced on site. Since many of these places no longer exist, his photographs serve as their final, "official" record.
Accompanying Payne's photographs is an essay by Oliver Sacks (who described his own experience working at a state metal hospital in his book Awakenings). Sacks pays tribute to Payne's photographs and to the lives once lived in these places, "where one could be both mad and safe."
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