Transition is a body of photographic work that explores two New York State psychiatric hospitals, Kings Park Psychiatric Center, and Letchworth Village. These two locations were eventually forced to close when beginning in the 1970's New York State's changing policies reduced, or even eliminated funding given to hospitals specializing in psychiatric care. In the following decades many psychiatric hospitals shut down piece by piece, releasing patients, usually without any community support, and abandoning the buildings.
When Kings Park Psychiatric Center was founded in 1885, the goal was to treat patients suffering from nervous disorders (which were thought to be a response to the chaos of life in an industrialized society). Occupational therapy was at the heart of the healing and treatment for most of the patients. At one point, the hospital grounds functioned as a self sustaining community, farming its own food, providing its own electricity, with almost all labor coming from the patients themselves. Letchworth Village was opened a few decades later in Theills, New York. The intention behind Letchworth Village was to provide a community and facilities for the physically and mentally disabled. In the beginning, Letchworth was seen as a progressive and humane alternative to the overcrowded asylums of the 19th century. Like Kings Park, many of the residents farmed, raised livestock, and even crafted goods.
The stories of these two asylums mirror that of many psychiatric hospitals across the United States during the 20th Century. Society has always had to grapple with the question of how to care for (or whether to care for) those who can not care for themselves. There is a vivid and in many ways very dark history of the treatment of those with mental disturbances, disorders and disabilities. No doubt the founding principles of places such as Kings Park were progressive and humane, even by today's standards. The logistical and financial challenges of managing an increasing population eventually took its toll on institutions like Letchworth Village and Kings Park, not to mention the various allegations, as well as hard evidence of abuse by staff and doctors. As new techniques and treatments emerged, the search for quick (and inexpensive) solutions to deep and complex problems brought about changes to the way the patients were treated, and also perceived. In the 1950's, when psychotropic drugs became an option for treatment, the prevailing attitudes shifted the approach of patient care from longterm institutionalization to the promise of these new drug treatments. For some, psychotropic drug treatment really would bring about meaningful results, but without a community of support and assistance, self-care outside of an institution, with its structure and supervision, would prove to be unmanageable alone. Many of the released patients would eventually find themselves homeless or incarcerated, abandoned by society, not unlike the institutions in these photographs.
Imagery of abandoned spaces has filled the collective psyche for years. A quick internet search reveals whole communities dedicated to "urban exploration" and a wealth of information, lore, and of course, photography. Considering the breadth of powerful work of this nature currently in existence, such as Stephen Wilkes' photographs of Ellis Island, or Wyatt Gallery's photographs taken in New Orleans, post Katrina, the approach in Transition was to emphasize light and color as some of the main subject matter. Many of the photographs in Transition are of the spaces themselves, usually showing most of the room. The photographs often include an element referring to a point of passage, whether it is a door, window, or hallway. These particular choices highlight the idea of transport, or desire. The viewpoint of some one contained inside a reality, looking outward, separated. The photographs taken in these spaces are not meant to document the decay, but to give a sense of these spaces as they are now, while more importantly, calling to mind their past. The imagery deviates from the familiar, looking more like stills from a dream, rather than actual hard photographic documentation.
The photographic process is integral, not only to the appearance of this body of work, but the intentions behind it as well. The process in this case, intentionally utilizes the failures of the color film medium to achieve the overall quality present in the final image. These photographs are taken in some of the darkest rooms within the buildings. To the human eye, these spaces are scarcely lit by very little residual daylight. The photographs are made using long exposures, during which a flashlight is used. Walking around the space, through the photographic frame, human elements are uncovered using the hand held light. By literally shedding light on various objects, or structures, their presence is revealed to the camera. The results of these long exposures are strange color casts. It is an image that does not reflect how the space actually appears. It allows the space to be transformed in a way that only a photograph can, capturing human impact on a number of levels. In a way a space is created that cannot simply be seen by going to these places. It can only exist in a photograph. The images give a sense of two realities existing simultaneously. These spaces exist in the present without purpose, but are alive and rich with history and a deep societal impact. The photographs capture the mysticism and curiosity, a disconnect with reality, that now exists within the walls of these asylums, leaving the viewer contemplating the existence of these places' strange and haunting pasts, while also allowing for an intensely personal experience with the work.
The uncomfortable truth is that the United States has always had a large portion of it's population institutionalized. it is hard to talk about institutionalization without mentioning mass incarceration. In my research of this project I came across overwhelming evidence to suggest that the two are inextricably linked. I wanted to also make mention of this as it does bear significance to the human element of the work. The issues that have been lightly touched upon above are ongoing and ever-evolving, and touch so many lives, in all facets of society, but almost always the most vulnerable. The question of how to care for your fellow human beings does not seem to go away. Today we know more than when I created this body of work in 2008. I hope for a brighter and better future full of compassion and understanding for all who suffer.