Seeking Asylum

A midcentury autopsy theater, with Eames chairs

In his new book Asylum: Inside the Haunting World of 19th Century Mental Hospitals, photographer Christopher Payne shares many images of life during the heydey of these state-run institutions, and offers many more striking images that he captured on his own as he returned to these now long-abandoned places.

Dresses worn by adult female patients

Patient toothbrushes

I find the whole photo project fascinating, although I am careful not to romanticize mental illness, as it’s not a lifestyle choice.  The vast majority of these buildings saw substantial losses in funding during the mid-twentieth century, and fell into decay as more and more sections were closed off from use as the decades went by.

A staircase in a South Dakota hospital

Some of the most jaw-dropping images, for me, were of patients’ suitcases. Stacks of them sag on shelves or sit piled on the floor. Patients came to stay, but many never used them again because they never ended up leaving.

Patient suitcases

Which leads to this photo, taken in a storage room at a hospital in Oregon.

Unclaimed urns

The introduction of this book is written by Dr. Oliver Sachs, who primes the reader with a history of mental institutions in the United States. Originally built to house people for a lifetime, often in quite pastoral surroundings, their functions changed as advances in medicine altered the treatment of the mentally ill. It’s a fascinating read, for sure.

Images via Amazon and Brain Pickings


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