There are a lot of different reasons that I’ll write about a book here on Brews and Books. If I really, really enjoyed a book, I’ll try and put up at least a couple words to get it on to people’s book piles. Much more rarely, I’ll try and help people steer clear of a book I abhorred by writing a bit about why I hated it. Whether I liked or disliked a book, if I’m sent something to review I try to get something about it up on the site.
Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals is a bit different than any of these. I want to recommend Asylum because it is an incredibly strong, incredibly beautiful book. Unfortunately, I think that the price, size, or subject matter of Christopher Payne’s book might prevent people from giving it a chance. Don’t let this happen. I have mentioned before that I am loathe to recommend expensive books, but this gorgeous hardcover is worth every penny.
Over six years, photographer and architect Christopher Payne visited crumbling and decaying state mental hospitals around the country. In total, Payne visited 70 institutions in 30 states, and this book collects almost 200 of the photos he took on these visits. The story of these buildings is fascinating. Most of the state mental institutions in the US were built between the Civil War and World War I, all based on an outline from Pennsylvania hospital superintendent Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride’s ideas about how to best help the mentally unsound – “well-designed buildings and grounds … fresh air… places for work, exercise, and cultural activities” – led to the palatial, open and epic design of over 250 state facilities built in the US. However, when the policies for caring for the mentally ill shifted starting in the 60s, patient populations dropped precipitiously and the hospitals fell into disrepair.
While Oliver Sacks provides an interesting (and, of course, well-written) essay to accompany the pictures in the book, the real stars of Asylum are Payne’s photographs. The photographs are just powerful. Inside and out, the building have reached a state of disrepair that many assigned to the minds of the former residents. The peeling paint, collapsing fixtures and general disarray are a marked contrast to the bright colors and airy, regal architecture of the asylums. Even more haunting is the way everything simply looks as if it was abandoned one day, as if all of the residents and employees were suddenly abducted. Toothbrushes still hang on a rack on the wall, chairs sit in front of windows, and family pictures still hang on walls. Payne provides an excellent mix of exterior and interior shots, and plays with showing both distinct subjects to focus on and broader shots highlighting the architecture inside and outside.
The pictures are incredible, the writing is moving, and this book will stick with you for a long time. Please, at least take the time to look through a slideshow of shots from the book at Payne’s website. Even better, go to your local bookstore and look through a copy – the final large, printed shots are a sight to see. But don’t let Asylum become an art book that’s never picked up, relegated to the bargain table.
As one last bit of encouragement, I’ve included a bunch of pictures from the book just to further entice you to buy Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals.