Cover: AsylumThere are images in this book that you may never forget. I promise you.

Asylum by Christopher Payne is a photographic essay “Inside the closed world of state mental hospitals” in America. It consists of an essay by Oliver Sacks  (author of The man who mistook his wife for a hat) and an overview of seventy American mental hospital buildings by the photographer Christopher Payne.

Then you are on your own, nothing but you and these incredibly powerful images.

From the 1950’s, the treatment of  mental illness in America changed. It went from patients living in independent, self-sufficient communities housed in spectacular purpose-built buildings, to a greater dependence on drug treatments and the integration of mentally ill patients into their communities.

This book is about those buildings. Unused, seemingly hastily abandoned and falling into a state of disrepair, you find yourself sucked through their impressive front foors and down their long sad corridors. Yet Payne claims: “I found no ghosts inhabiting the hallways” and one of the former patients Anna Agnew says of these places:

 “They were places where one could be both mad and safe.”

Which brings me to my only quibble: the cover. Have a look at this book: of all the images at his disposal, do you think this is the best cover that the author could have chosen?

6 thoughts on “Asylum

  1. Helen weideman 20 April 2012 / 3:48 pm

    At a quick glance I see a cover that would represented something from the 18th Century, straight jackets, those metal buttons, and the red printi inside the jacket, all look forboding, one’s imagination pictures, icy cold showers, locked doors, loneliness, doesn’t make me want to read the book

    • robertafsmith 20 April 2012 / 5:48 pm

      It’s actually a book about the buildings, that’s why I don’t like the cover – why didn’t he use one of his incredibly beautiful shots of these magnificent buildings instead. I agree that this cover is off-putting, but the book itself is great.

  2. tazliz 23 April 2012 / 9:56 am

    The subject brings up big emotions for me – fear, repulsion, compassion and predominantly intrigue. I’m going to put a hold on a copy to have a look at the places in which people were hidden away from the mainstream culture. The cover does look miserable. I have a family member who was institutionalised in the 50s and, although the treatments were harsh, she felt they helped her. Having said that, I am glad there is a more integrative approach to mental illness today. Driving up to one of those old buildings knowing you were about to give up your autonomy must have been terrifying.

  3. robertafsmith 23 April 2012 / 10:14 am

    This really is a book where every picture tells a story. The photographer does not impose his views at all so I found myself creating the script – the photos are remarkable. Hope it works for you as well.

  4. purplerulz 27 April 2012 / 3:38 pm

    Just got this home and love it! I actually loved the cover, I think it speaks to the personal, the photographs are buildings, but in those buildings were the wretched and forgotten and straight jackets would have been part of their lives. I think it also has a stunning sculptural quality. My step daughter who is psyc student at Uni was fascinated by it too. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • robertafsmith 27 April 2012 / 3:47 pm

      Interesting observation re the cover, very powerful book that.

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