Both of Payne’s book projects have involved structures designed for a very specific purpose. “I’m very much interested in these [types of] purpose-built structures that have an architecture that goes with them,” he says. “Most of the things that are built now are mixed-use, retail, condominiums—everything is meant to be flexible. There is a sense of permanence to these older buildings that is very appealing.”

Shortly after the substation book came out, a friend suggested he consider shooting mental hospitals. Intrigued, he made a trip to Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island, which, when constructed, was the largest institution of its kind. “Something like that, of that scale—it makes an impression on you,” he recalls. “I often wonder, if I had seen something much smaller, would I have continued?”

As he learned more about the state hospitals and their deterioration in recent decades, he felt an increasing urgency to document them. “You see something that has such beauty and uniqueness, and you realize that it’s not going to be there forever.”

He began approaching mental-health agencies in different states—“I’d say, ‘I’m doing this book and do you have anything old out there?’”—and one permission led to another as he crisscrossed the country. A number of the facilities he visited were still operational but at a vastly reduced capacity. At one hospital where 3,000 inmates had once been housed, there were 40 patients in residence. Unused space was either closed off or given over to other state agencies—often to serve as prisons. “You’ll have a huge campus and the buildings on one end have a big fence around them, and that’s a prison or some sort of correctional facility.”

In the Northeast especially, it was more common for the hospitals to be completely abandoned. “It was like driving into a ghost town, that sense of total dereliction and decay,” he says. “There wasn’t anyone around. Sometimes they wouldn’t even have security guards.”

“A lot of my early photographs were trying to get a grip on these complexes,” he adds. “In photography you’re dealing with a rectangular box, and how do you take those views? Sometimes I’d have to do a series of shots together. So a lot of the early stuff was just trying to comprehend and show the architecture.”

As time went by, he began to get a feel for the common features of the hospitals—the ward structure of long hallways with patients’ rooms opening off them, for instance. “For all the differences you are initially confronted with, over time you begin to see the similarities of all the hospitals,” he says. “By the end of the project I could move through a hospital and disregard things I knew weren’t essential or unique or that I had taken before.

“At the end I was really taking many more artifact type shots,” he says. “My last trip was mostly focused on taking pictures of straitjackets, medical equipment, things that didn’t interest me as much initially because they were too small.”

 

Mar|Apr 2010 contents
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Architecture of Madness by John Prendergast
Photography by Chris Payne GAr’96

Lobby and staircase, Yankton State Hospital; nurses station, Central State Hospital.

     
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Last modified 2/23/10