Asylum: Photographs by Christopher Payne
255 Centre Street
Through May 23
During the last century and a half, more than 250 psychiatric institutions rose across the American landscape, sprawling worlds within worlds that by 1948 were home to half a million souls. Over a six-year journey chronicled in his book Asylum: Inside the Closed World of Mental Hospitals (MIT Press, 2009), the photographer Christopher Payne visited 70 of these sites in 30 states, documenting what is effectively the end of an era in public health.
A sea change in tactics for the treatment of the mentally ill—including psychotherapeutic medications and policies that favor community-based care—has led to the closure of many such cities of the insane. Now in various stages of limbo, neglect, and demolition, they are testament to an uneasy chapter in medical history, but also to a vanishing era of architectural aspiration.
The large-format prints on view at Clic Gallery, in the photographer’s first New York gallery exhibition, evoke a time when hospital wards were civic monuments, what Payne sees as nobly intentioned spaces of refuge and respect. Many of these institutions boast National Register–listed grounds. The Buffalo State Hospital, for instance, designed by a youthful H.H. Richardson in 1870, was among the first of the architect’s essays in brawny Romanesque. With its pavilions flanking a towering central volume—using the relatively novel Kirkbride system that grouped patients by type of illness—the 11-building complex amounted to a fortress of serenity for those within. Photographed by Payne at night, its floodlit profile etched against the darkness, the building remains an imposing urban landmark.
Other progressive institutions on Payne’s itinerary include the Yankton State Hospital in South Dakota, where a winding stone staircase looks like it belongs in an English country house—testament to Dr. Leonard Mead, who helped pioneer the notion that patients deserved comfortable, architecturally pleasing environments loaded with Carrara marble and terrazzo floors.
Payne, who trained as an architect before turning to photography, is attuned to the incongruously fine detail or trace of order among landscapes of decay. As in his earlier project documenting old substations, where he highlighted the formal elegance of rotary converters and high-tension switches that once powered the New York City subways, Payne frames gorgeous compositions. In the present series, such exquisite camerawork can seem at odds with the emotionally charged aura that pervades these spaces. Despite the progressive ideals behind their designs, there’s no escaping the penitentiary aspect of axial views down long ward corridors, or in the Matteawan State Hospital in Beacon, NY, now a correctional facility looming forlornly behind barbed wire.
Perhaps the most affecting images in Asylum are those that confront head-on the human experience of asylum life: dozens of toothbrushes hung neatly in a cabinet, each labeled with the name of its owner; patient suitcases piled sadly in an attic; bowling shoes at the ready for a night at the lanes in Rockland. And, as if in a final effort to contain uncommonly messy lives, there are some 3,500 copper cremation urns at the Oregon State Hospital, each holding a patient’s unclaimed remains.