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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

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4.29 of 5 stars 4.29  ·  rating details  ·  508 ratings  ·  82 reviews

For more than half the nation's history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, over 250 institutions for the insane were built throughout the United States; by 1948, they housed more than a half million patients.

The blueprint for these hospitals was set by Pennsylvania hospital sup

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Hardcover, 209 pages
Published September 4th 2009 by MIT Press (MA)
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Ansel Adams by Ansel AdamsBrassai by BrassaïThe Americans by Robert FrankIn Focus by Leah Bendavid-ValA History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum
Exceptional Photography Books*
34th out of 349 books — 108 voters
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Medicine and Literature
200th out of 1,009 books — 1,240 voters


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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,705)
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Jaye
from the book:
Patient poem on a basement wall,
Augusta State Hospital, Augusta, Maine

" If my heart could speak,
I'm sure it would say, I wish I were
someplace else Today.
Among these books, a great amount of knowledge there must be,
but what good is Knowledge where others carry the keys.
Through the last ten years many improvements have been made,
but the final words seem to say, don't forget, my good man you're still
a patient here today. Intelligence,ability,and knowledge surely will
never l
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Beth
I grew up in the shadow of Danvers State Hospital. It closed the year of my high school graduation; some in my circle of friends were prone to facetiously answering "Danvers State!" when asked where they were attending college. The place, with its looming red brick Gothic architecture, was a favorite clandestine meeting place of youth inclined to illegally imbibe--or ghost hunt--at midnight on weekends. It has not an alluring place for me. In truth, I have only been to the grounds once, while dr ...more
Trin
Beautiful and eerie collection of photographs of (mostly) abandoned state mental hospitals. There are two informative essays by the photographer, Christopher Payne, and one by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, but in many ways the images speak for themselves. Payne highlights the grand, imposing edifices of these decaying institutions, their grandeur making it possible to understand how a mental asylum was once considered a great coup for a community. But it’s impossible not to also see the d ...more
Andrea Mullarkey
I was gobsmacked by this book! I don’t know what I was expecting when I requested it, but when it arrived I discovered a volume filled with beautiful photographs of crumbling asylums. It is a form of photojournalism that tells of the majesty of asylums: their architecture, interiors, landscaping and purpose. As well it tells the story of their decline and decay: the shattered windows, peeling paint, abandoned suitcases and trees growing up through cement. The pictures themselves are stunning and ...more
Arminzerella
The age of the state mental hospital has come and gone. Many of these enormous edifices have already been razed to make way for developers, and the remaining structures are boarded up, or only make use of portions of their once expansive rooms and grounds – a very different picture from their heyday. A 1948 census/study done by the state of Illinois found that there were 539,000 patients in mental hospitals around the country. In the 1950s there were 33,000 mental patients on Long Island alone. ...more
Ashley
Not what I was expecting! This is like a coffee table book - oversized and mostly pictures. I love Oliver Sacks and he did a great intro. I had no idea that insane asylums (later referred to as state mental hospitals) were initially symbols of pride for a community that showed their forward-thinkingness. As time advanced, however, things went downhill leaving us with the common negative stereotypes we have today.

The pictures were good - some sad, some surprising (bowling alleys and patient-run T
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Mike
Overall, as splendid as one could wish for in a single-volume book of photography of abandoned mental hospitals. The Internet showcases a variety of sites devoted to explorations of such hospitals and "homes for the feeble-minded" as they were once known, and while some sites are just grainy photos of kids mucking about in an abandoned hospital, some sites are beyond amazing with photography able to rival the best professional efforts. So, to pick up a book with such photography when a wider spe ...more
Jane
This book gives you a brief history of the evolution of state psychiatric institutions ("insane asylums") and their original purpose to provide respite and care for people with mental illnesses. As I thumbed through the brilliant photos of the former asylums in their current state; however, I was overwhelmed by the sadness and helplessness that the institutions exude. A patient poem that was written on the wall of a basement in the Augusta State Hospital in Maine is particularly poignant - and p ...more
Heidi
Rather odd little coffee table book filled with photographs of abandoned mental hospitals. The photographs were eerie and evocative, like any photographs of ghost towns or abandoned buildings. But I just kept thinking this was all such a waste. The asylums were enormous, some with a population larger than my home town. (Blackfoot's very own State Hospital South, since it's not abandoned, didn't make it into this book.) And they had barns and fish hatcheries and their own power plants. But instea ...more
Mary Whisner
When I checked this out of library, I wasn't expecting what it is: a collection of photographs of old asylums with introductory essays by Oliver Sacks and Christopher Payne, who is the photographer and is also an architect. That's the thing about checking out ebooks. When you check out a physical book, of course you know what you're holding in your hands. I didn't realize that this was a "coffee table book" until I saw that it could only be loaded on my iPad, not my Kindle. In any event, I did e ...more
Carrie
This book had a vert short, but informative essay about the history of American asylums and with the amazing photos the book provides, I've come to realize how beautiful these buildings are and how important they were to the people who called them home. They are not the places I always believed them to be. This book has let me see that asylums are not scary, they are actually quite sad and it is sad to think that their incredible history lays deteriorating and has been forgotten. It is a beautif ...more
Betterthanfiction
This collection of photos is a true Rorschach test for the reader. The decrepit Victorian-era buildings are both beautiful and sinister. Abandoned rooms show both care and terrifying restriction - gardens, beautify parlors, movie theaters, coffee stands, barred doors and rooms of straightjackets. As one after another of these large state hospitals falls nuder the wrecking ball, Payne has made it his job to document what were once common institutions. Most were closed in the 1970s in what was arg ...more
Trina
So this is a really sobering, but excellent look at Asylums. It's not a history of the asylums per say, but...

The photography is stunning, and really captures the essence of the asylums. The failed institutions, once grand buildings and considered the pinnacle of human compassion and medical knowledge, now dilapidated and ruined, a failed experiment that claimed far too many lives. There isn't much to actually *read*, but I think the photos speak for themselves. (a thousand words and all that..
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Alicia
What a beautifully inspired and rendered book that focuses less on asylums in general and more of the grandeur and beauty that they had when they were created but the beauty that still exists decades after they were abandoned. The images are stark and learning about the hows and purposes for their design, structure, and use made seeing the images epic.

It's also a connection to come across one of the oldest asylum's in the US as in the backyard of where you grew up (Utica, NY) with it's beautifu
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Kathryn
Incredible essay by Oliver Sacks on the history of the mental asylum. It was amazing to learn so many things about the self-sufficiency of the early asylums. Christopher Payne provides a generous spread of pictures from the long forgotten buildings that presents the viewer with strong emotions. The deserted hallways, empty rooms, and architectural disarray lend a reminder of the patients who once called many of these institutions home. Asylum is a visual journey into the world of state hospitals ...more
Sheena  at Hot Eats and Cool Reads
I was so excited when I received the email saying this book was on it's way to me via the MN Link Interlibrary Loan System. The timing was perfect. In just over a week, my siblings and I will be touring Fergus Falls State Hospital in Fergus Falls, MN. I will be posting about our tour in a future post!

This book contains images from the Fergus Falls Hospital as well as many others around the United States. I am wowed by the Kirkbride Architecture and the massive size of the buildings and grounds.
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John
Numerous other studies of abandoned asylums, both amateur and professional, have emphasized the individual patient experience in these institutions, by focusing on discarded belongings. Payne's photography, however, takes a step back to focus on the asylum on a community level. In his afterword, he talks about his admiration for the self-sustaining quality of these forgotten institutions, and Oliver Sacks' essay explains the benefits of that self-sustenance from a clinical perspective - as well ...more
Patricia Weenolsen
Jan 04, 2012 Patricia Weenolsen rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Interests in Architecture, Mental Illness, Design
Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, Photographs by Christopher Payne with an Essay by Oliver Sacks. Published by MIT Press, 2009.

This is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. The photographs portray stunning refuges for the insane, designed by some of the greatest architects of the last two centuries. These asylums are now crumbling, either subsiding back to earth or being torn down by developers to create apartments for supposedly normal people like you and me.
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Rena Sherwood
Well, today I give it three stars but tomorrow I may come back and give it two stars. This is a very strange book of mostly photographs and postcard reproductions that give off a nostalgia for state mental asylums. Oliver Sachs gives a fine essay, but the bulk of the book is photographs of crumbling buildings. It does get repetative after a while. I also wasn't keen on the itty-bitty photo titles at the bottom of the pages and also not keen on Payne's writing. I had to skim through that.

WARNING:
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Kate
I've always been fascinated by insane asylums, and yet this book taught me something new. I had in my head this image of the 1950s-1960s mental hospitals. The introduction spoke of asylums as self-sustaining places where patients would work, and could enjoy leisurely walks on beautiful grounds. I never put much thought into why these enormous, beautiful buildings were erected - and through these photographs I realized how full of life and beauty these places once were, long before the overcrowdi ...more
Vanessa
The author gathers a collection of photographs of mental hospitals that have mostly been abandoned and are now left to the elements and time. The images evoke feelings of desolation, sadness, loss, and surprisingly, admiration for some of the more noble rehabilitation efforts and the beauty of the architecture.

I was especially touched by the remnants of the residents: the suitcases left behind, the straitjackets and clothes still in decent condition, and the countless numbers of grave markers a
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Lisa Curley
The photographs are interesting, but I was more engaged by the introduction by Oliver Sacks and what little explanatory texts there are. The photos of the demolition of Danvers State Hospital were strangely unsettling, as I, like the author, have felt a fascination for that place since I saw it.
Carrie
Oct 25, 2013 Carrie added it
Recommends it for: Photographers and lovers of architecture
If you are a connoisseur of photographic art and architecture you will love this book. Minimal 13 page essay followed by page after page of a gracious mix of gorgeous black and white and color photographs of both beautiful and beautifully dilapidated American Asylums! Love the doors on page 64: “WHO CARES” painted on one of them. Also the BW lighting and peeling paint on 74. The toothbrushes on 93, which are, for the most part, in alphabetical order, show a testament to the order of institutions ...more
Jeff
Apr 23, 2010 Jeff added it
Shelves: photography
On pages 42 and 71, you will find photographs of the Northampton State Hospital. There, when I was 16, my friends and I were threatened with arrest by police who patrolled the decrepit grounds day and night. This monstrously vast facility fascinated us, as it had others who had pried their ways inside to explore not just exam rooms still containing x-rays, mortuaries, underground tunnels, and other mysterious, otherworldly realms of the past, but also simply the time-saturated, crumbling walls. ...more
Angela
This is just me being picky, but I would have liked this book better if it had been organized differently. I would have preferred to have a section for each hospital, so that all the pictures from one specific hospital were grouped together. I also would have liked more context, even if it just meant a brief description of each hospital, like when it was built and when it closed down. I understand that this is meant to be a purely visual book, but for me, part of what makes these buildings so in ...more
Kai
I waited for this book for a long time. It's done so beautifully and with such respect for the patients who lived their lives in these places. It shows both sadness and beauty in the day to day working of asylums and the wonder of their architecture.

I saw the actual art exhibit when it came to the Kennedy Museum of Art, shown in one of the last few remaining Kirkbride asylums, The Ridges. It was a powerful, moving exhibit that paid such a powerful tribute to the not so long ago past of psycholo
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Jennifer
I kept waiting for Christopher Payne's Asylum to turn into a horror movie. Instead,this gorgeously photographed and historically illuminating book resists the easy cheap thrill and stays firmly grounded in reality, offering insightful essays from Oliver Sacks and Payne on the history of mental health facilities and their architectural design. It would have been simple (and profitable) to make a visual version of Stolarz's Project 17, but Payne instead restores dignity to these abandoned spaces. ...more
Greta is Erikasbuddy
I loved the forgotten world of asylums. How nature has taken over. How the paint has started pealing. Just so beautiful in its own way!!
Irene
A haunting, painful book to read. The extraordinary photographs complementary to the text offer a contextual glimpse into mental hospitals, which honorably began as "asylums." The deplorable decline that transformed such havens into virtual prisons utilized to experiment with and medicate its patients into submission is very different from its dignified beginnings.

For those who found daily life overwhelming, it was an accessible, inviolable refuge and a peaceful shelter. A safe sanctuary, which
...more
Amy
Amazing and breathtaking photographs of abandoned asylums. This book invoked so many different emotions in me. Incredible.
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