A Peek into Asylum: One Photographer's Perspective of the Interior World of Mental Asylums
(Photographer: Christopher Payne. Title: File Boxes)

If you love the idea of photographing abandoned buildings and institutions, yet don't like the idea of trespassing on private property, you might like the way Christopher Payne went about photographing 70 mental hospitals across 30 states between the years of 2002 to 2008. Christopher Payne, photographer and architect, was given open access to visit and document the history of the American asylum in his newest book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. We peek into Payne's perspective about the interior world of mental asylums from a photographer's (and architect's) point-of-view.

"We tend to think of mental hospitals as “snake pits”—places of nightmarish squalor and abuse—and this is how they have been portrayed in books and film. Few Americans, however, realize these institutions were once monuments of civic pride, built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians, who envisioned the asylums as places of refuge, therapy, and healing." 
 (Excerpt: Asylum Project Statement)

Take Nothing but Photographs, Leave Nothing but Footprints

If you've ever read any of our past article posts regarding our views about trespassing or breaking and entering, then you know we don't agree with a sub-group of certain explorers these days. There are at least two other methods of gaining access to a building. One is express permission as Payne's six-year project clearly illustrates, and we like how his creative project exemplifies how gaining access to non-accessible institutions through legitimate routes benefits the documentation of abandoned institutions before they are demolished forever.

Another method of exploration is to visit one of the many hospitals and prisons that are open to the public. I've heard explorers suggest these are less exciting alternatives; well, all I have to say about that is they need to figure out why they're doing what they're doing and why they're effectively ruining it for the rest of us. It seems to me photographers and historians do less damage in buildings, are less interested in the hype about infilteration, thus follow urban explorations golden rule:

"Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints."

There are times when someone needs to tread softly and go through an already open door (Note: That does not mean pick a lock or kick the door down ... ), but those moments are only known by the faint footprints left behind. The footprints left behind do not need to be published all over the web inviting vandalism and thrill seekers. This is why there is such heavy security these days at many of the remaining locations not yet demolished - at least in our humble opinion.

Copyright and Permissions

Photographers that trespass also need to keep in mind that without express permission from the owners, your published photography, or even photographs entered into photography contests could be forfeited without the proper permissions from the owners of the property.

A Photographer's Approach

Granted, it could take years to gain permission to enter and photograph some of these decaying institutions, but that holds a particular excitement on its own. Furthermore, Payne was able to photograph some off-limits buildings that housed residents, meaning the buildings were not yet vandalized, nor looted and stripped of their interiors and artifacts. This fact actually makes Payne's photographs of particular interest. In context, this lends to his work an engaging mixture of sweeping interior landscape and still life. A few of my favorite photographs from Payne's collection are 'Patient Toothbrushes' taken at Hudson River State Hospital, 'Hair Salon' at Trenton State Hospital, 'Unclaimed Cremation Remains' at Oregon State Hospital, 'Patient Suitcases' at Bolivar State Hospital, 'File Boxes' at Spring Grove State Hospital and 'Bowling Shoes' at Rockland State Hospital.

Technique: Use of Light, Space and Minimalism

Another aspect of Payne's Asylum collection I like is his minimalist approach. In fact, I prefer to see images of asylums that are clean, bright, simple and elegant. In fact, many of Payne's images run counter-intuitive to the mainstream urban exploration crowd. Sometimes when I'm viewing the dark, shadowed images common to urban exploration, I simply wish I could see the details of an image in the light of daylight. Maybe my age is telling in itself, but if I have to squint that much to see a darkened image I am finding it not worth my time more and more these days. It's simply a matter of taste and style, but I've really enjoyed the use of light, space and minimalism of Payne's Asylum project. If you're interested in viewing a sample of images published in the book Asylum, you can view the slideshow here.

If you're interested in viewing Payne's projects, you may visit his website here. I also enjoyed his project listed under North Brother Island, in New York. Christopher Payne also has more upcoming gallery exhibits in 2012-2013 in Belgium, Netherlands and Italy.
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Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.
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We see the beauty in decay and the shadowed dreams of the forgotten.