Last October, the domed 19th-century building that stood as the centerpiece to New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital was demolished. As one of the Kirkbride Plan asylums, designed across the United States based on ideas promoted by psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride, it was constructed with the curative power of architecture in mind. Airy and brightly lit corridors, as stately as a Victorian manor, were surrounded by open space and farms, encouraging an active lifestyle as a treatment for mental illness. As medicine progressed in the 20th century, and many patients in these hospitals suffered from overcrowding, neglect, and, later, lobotomies, the Kirkbrides became obsolete, mostly abandoned. Greystone is one of many now reduced to rubble, a historic loss that can be seen as either cathartic or catastrophic.
From 2002 to 2008, photographer Christopher Payne visited Kirkbride hospitals in over 30 states. Asylum at Benrubi Gallery in Chelsea showcases some of these photographs, which were previously published in the 2009 Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals from MIT Press. Payne’s photographs contrast haunting human details with the imposing architecture. Rows of colorful toothbrushes are labeled with patient names from Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, while the bright dresses of three female patients at Iowa’s Clarinda State Hospital are carefully hung on hooks. Against these personal moments are views like the lobby of South Dakota’s Yankton State Hospital with its grandly neoclassical marble staircase, and an unused coffin resting alongside numbered tombstones, the common system in which patients were buried.
By taking these close and long views, Payne’s images sidestep the easy pitfall of “ruin porn” that often plagues such photography, quietly visualizing something of the lives spent in these spaces, and Kirkbride’s attempt to cure through architecture. The hushed feel to the photographs is similar to his treatment of other subjects, whether workers at the Steinway factory in Astoria, or the ruins of North Brother Island in the East River, another complicated site of public health and now a bird sanctuary.
The photographs are joined by a few artifacts from the asylums, such as a 1954 census board from Creedmoor in Queens (not a Kirkbride), counting its over 4,000 patients, and a wall of cheery postcards showing the asylums at their prime in saturated colors. One from Waupaca County Asylum in Wisconsin reads: “With all good wishes, my cousin Lillie.”
Preservation doesn’t feel like an overt focus of Payne’s work, more like protecting something of the asylums’ histories as they slip away. Back in 2015, when the future of Greystone was still undecided, Phil Buehler, a fellow photographer who published his images of the asylum in Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty: Greystone Park State Hospital Revisited, told Hyperallergic that what “happened there is important to remember, and buildings are the one thing that outlast our memories, they outlast us.” There’s an argument that it’s no tragedy for these places of pain to disappear, yet they still hold the power to recall people who lived and died there, and were often forgotten.
Christopher Payne: Asylum continues at Benrubi Gallery (521 West 26th Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 26.