I was about 6 years old the first time I remember my family driving down this specific country highway about 15 miles from the town where I grew up. Off to the right, there was a ridiculously big, empty field; beyond the field, almost too far away for me to see, was a stout, square brick building next to a building with a big sloping roof.
“What’s that?” I asked from the backseat.
“It’s the hospital for the insane,” said my mother from the front seat.
“The funny farm,” said my older brother, leaning over from the other side of the back seat and whispering to me.
“The nut house,” said Laurie Marriott, the cool girl who lived around the corner, the next day when I told her about it.
That started my infatuation.
And truth be told, who isn’t a bit infatuated by the former insane asylums? Those of us old enough to remember know that they were fairly common during the first three quarters of the 20th century, then they all but disappeared as Prozac was invented and President Reagan cut the funding for them, having decided that crazy people were better off homeless, on the streets of America’s major cities, than they were in state-supported hospitals. Reagan did this thoroughly it seems, because now I couldn’t tell you where the nearest psychiatric hospital even is.
I moved to Indianapolis after they closed and deconstructed Central State. Or maybe, it was here but I didn’t discover it in time. It was unbelievably big. (Why were there so many Hoosiers in need of a psychiatric hospital?) Central State was called “Seven Steeples” despite the fact that it had eight. The building was just so big that there wasn’t a vantage point where you could see all eight steeples at once. Here is Central State, from the 1920s (you can see the Seven Steeples building at the top of the frame).
Central State Hospital, circa 1920
Until now, Richard Avedon was the photographer who had shot my preferred collection of photography from a mental institution. His work, however, concentrated on the patients rather than the structures. His photos in this series are not easy to look at, some people might even say they’re exploitive. Personally, I think this collection might be the most honest portraiture I can think of. These are two of Avedon’s photos, which I would never be brave enough to shoot. Not in a million years.
Two photography by Richard Avedon
There is a new book that’s just been released, called Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, by a photographer named Christopher Payne. As opposed to the people, this book features the architecture of the hospitals — which was usually stunning. Apparently, crazy people do well in beautiful settings, or maybe it’s just another case of, they just don’t build things like they used to.
Two photos from “Asylum,” by Christopher Payne
The book speaks to the landscape and exterior architecture of the hospitals, which was used as a ruse:
The location of the hospitals, in the countryside, away from the city, afforded ample privacy and an abundance of land for farming and gardening, which were integral to the patients’ daily regimen of exercise. . . . The grounds provided relief from the indoor sights and sounds of the asylum and also served as a dramatic setting for the buildings, enhancing their grandeur. As visitors to the asylums never penetrated beyond the public lobbies of the administration buildings, it was these spaces and the landscapes that acted as the chief agents of propaganda to exert a positive influence on public perception.
I have to have this book. Immediately.