Photographing the Architectural Remains of 19th Century American Asylums - Atlas Obscura
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Photographing the Architectural Remains of 19th Century American Asylums

article-imageWheel chairs and peeling paint (all photograph by Jeremy Harris)

Across the East Coast of the United States are crumbling ruins of failures to treat mental illness, with peeling interiors once intended to be cheery encouragement and forgotten treatment devices from bowling alleys to hydrotherapy tubs. Photographer Jeremy Harris has documented many of these institutions in a project called American Asylums: Moral Architecture of the 19th CenturyWe asked Harris a few questions about his work:

What is your background as a photographer and how did you start documenting the asylums?

I began photographing abandoned farm houses and factories in the 1980s while in high school. I moved to San Francisco in 1990 to finish college. There I started my career as a pro portrait/rock and roll photographer. In 2004, I discovered the abandoned asylums through various internet sites and decided that I needed to see them for myself. So I would fly to the East Coast every couple of months and meet up with friends. We’d take exploring trips lasting from a day to two weeks.

article-imageDecayed staircase 

article-imageBeds in an asylum

Abandoned insane asylums are arguably some of the most unsettling places on earth. What drew you to want to spend so much time inside of them with this photography project?

Since my teens, I’ve been interested in history and abandoned structures, as well as abnormal psychology and insanity. When I visited my first asylum, the Lunatic Asylum in Buffalo, New York, I was able to roam the massive ward hallways, sit in actual patient rooms, and explore dark passages beneath the buildings. The experience was one of fascination and excitement — a feeling of stepping back into time and treading where few others have been in years.

article-imageCurved hallway

Once inside the buildings (after slipping past security and mental health police), I found the experiences to be quite calming and peaceful, as I was able to shut out the outside world and concentrate solely on photographing these beautifully designed buildings, the way the light shines in at all hours of the day and the ever-changing look of places that are slowly decaying and being reclaimed by nature. It was addicting and has become an obsession.

article-imageWater treatment tubs

article-imageForgotten files

Since you’re focused on American asylums, is there any impression you got of the country’s relationship to mental illness?

Well, I don’t see that we are any closer to a “cure” or figuring out how to treat mental illness without the use of mind numbing drugs. There are still plenty of mentally ill people on the streets or in prisons which was the reason the asylums were built in the first place — to get these people out of those situations and into a therapeutic environment.

article-imageCrossed light in a hallway

article-imagePatient toothbrushes

You have a really interesting eye for the lighting and odd details in asylums, rather than just going for straight shots of decay. Were there any particular aspects of the asylums around the country that you were repeatedly drawn to?

I’m obsessed with the viewing portholes on the patient room doors, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and are different from place to place. I’m also drawn to the seclusion rooms and padded cells where the most psychotic patients were kept, and the rooms with the most obvious signs of insanity (scratches on the walls, graffiti, dents and scrapes on the insides of the doors, etc.). Also the artifacts left behind — clothes, furniture, medical equipment.

article-imageRoom #7

article-imagePills, symptoms, emotional needs

Of the asylums you’ve visited, do you have any that you found to be especially unsettling?

The most nerve wracking thing about some of the places I’ve visited is the risk of getting arrested and the very real danger of exposure to asbestos and lead paint. And the occasional wild animal — I have been chased by raccoons and coyotes. By the way, I do not condone trespassing and strongly urge people, if they do decide to illegally enter an old building to wear a respirator.

View more of “American Asylums: Moral Architecture of the 19th Century” on Jeremy Harris’ website.