Cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest posing for their photograph on location at the Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1974. © MaryEllen Mark.


Mary Ellen Mark first went to Oregon State Hospital (OSH), Salem, OR in 1974 to photograph the cast and set of Milos Forman‘s 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Mark often shot on film sets).

During the filming, Mark met the women of Ward 81. She promised to return and after over a year of negotiations with the hospital authorities and families of residents she was allowed to live on Ward 81 with writer Karen Folger for 36 days. American Suburb X has republished Folger’s essay for Mark’s book giving a familiar and surprising account of the routines and dreams of the women on Ward 81.

Mark’s book was a breakthrough. Granted, photographs of Oregon State Hospital existed previously, but Mark’s work was a pioneer intimate portrait of an American group outside of the dream, outside of the reality. LIFE magazine had covered an OSH camping trip before. Oregon Historic Photograph Collections have 14 images of OSH.

Horsing around. © Marl Ellen Mark, 1974

© Marl Ellen Mark, 1974

Mary Frances Peeking from Tub, 1976. © Mary Ellen Mark.

Mark’s Ward 81 was a personal call to action; she cared deeply about the residents and wanted to use photography to describe their lives. Mark contends in all interviews I have read that the treatment of patients was good and fair.

Prison Photography has touched upon institutions developing an “art” persona overtime through the work of several art photographer, specifically Stateville Prison, Joliet, Illinois. The architectural form of Stateville can be pinned as the common fascination that drew art photographers Gursky, Dubois, Goldberg and Leventi.

Alternatively, the preoccupations at Oregon State Hospital are varied. In some cases, the emergence of a new story to be told and in others an homage to past photographic action at the institution.


David Maisel‘s Library of Dust is a meditation on the cremains of former OSH patients. Until 2004, the urns were locked in a basement and not public knowledge. The patients died at the hospital between 1883 (the year the facility opened, when it was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum) and the 1970’s; their bodies have remained unclaimed by their families.

Over a period of twenty years the basement in which the urns were locked flooded repeatedly. Studio360 describes well the chemical reactions ongoing between the copper, elements within the ashes and substances afixed by flood water. Maisel’s studies are a “yearbook of the socially dispossessed.”

The Oregonian newspaper won the 2006 Pulitzer for Editorial Writing in its coverage of the forgotten remains and the sad scandal of silence. The story caught the attention of the nation and Maisel’s work toured the country to wide acclaim. Maisel talks about his work here and BLDGBLOG has the best text as entry point to the multiple layers in Library of Dust.

© David Maisel

© David Maisel

The Mental Health Association of Oregon summarises Maisel’s work well:

The tale behind the canisters is indeed deeply disturbing. They hold the remains of 5,121 people who languished in the psychiatric hospital in — many of them for their entire adult lives — for reasons that nowadays might require nothing more than a Zoloft prescription and some couch time. The patients’ conditions listed in hospital records include “worries about sex” and “worries about money” — “things everyone walks around with today,” Maisel says. When these patients died, their relatives either had no money for a burial or no interest in claiming the bodies.

Maisel positions the work within the taboos of “craziness”, “death” but also links Library of Dust to his earlier mineralogical studies. Interestingly, Maisel’s title was first uttered by a custodian of another state institution. Maisel explains:

On my first visit to the hospital, I am escorted to a decaying outbuilding, where a dusty room lined with simple pine shelves is lined three-deep with thousands of copper canisters.

Prisoners from the local penitentiary are brought in to clean the adjacent hallway, crematorium, and autopsy room. A young male prisoner in a blue uniform, with his feet planted firmly outside the doorway, leans his upper body into the room, scans the cremated remains, and whispers in a low tone, “The library of dust.” The title and thematic structure of the project result from this encounter.

While on site, Maisel also made some interior studies of the decaying fabric of the building. The series is Asylum. OSH was shuttered in 2005 and demolition began in 2008. A new facility is slated for completion in 2012.

doctor's office, ward 66, abandoned portion of J building

Asylum 2. Doctor’s Office, Ward 66, Abandoned portion of J Building. © David Maisel.

Asylum 3

Asylum 3. © David Maisel

Asylum 7

Asylum 7. Tubs, Ward 7, Abandoned portion of J Building. © David Maisel

Maisel’s studies of the interior are less complex or politicised as the poetics of Library of Dust. Nevertheless, bare these images in mind as you read on.


Between 2002 and 2008, Chrsitopher Payne took on the largest photographic survey to date of America’s decaying psychiatric hospitals. For Asylum, Payne visited scores of old facilities and OSH was among them.

Interestingly Payne, photographed the storage room of cremains but didn’t extrapolate the stories into a memorial of politics as Maisel expertly did. And once, again the steep sided tiled bath tubs make a reappearance.

Oliver Sacks wrote the essay for Payne’s book. It is a ranging historical narrative of palatial institutions that could provide the best and the worst of care, but in most cases rarely prepared the patient for release back into society, “most residents were long-term.” The essay is accompanied by some wonderful historic postcards and generally Sacks tries to push us away from a narrative of “snake pits” and “hells of chaos” when thinking of psychiatric hospitals.

On Payne’s work, Sacks’ description is exactly how it appears, “[Payne’s photographs] pay tribute to a sort of public architecture that no longer exists. They focus both on the monumental and the mundane, the grand facades and the peeling paint.”

© Christopher Payne

© Christopher Payne

Peeling paint and broken down fixtures is a preoccupation of many a photographer. Architectural enthusiasts, disaster journalists and fine art photogs have all conspired to bring us the genre of “ruin porn” which continues to baffle and frustrate as much as it engages (but that discussion is for another time).


This inquiry began when Bill Diodato contacted me with news of his book release. c/o Ward 81 is a conscious revisit to OSH; a closing of the circle of photographic practice put into motion by Mary Ellen Mark 30 years previous. Indeed, Mark provides the foreword:

‘It’s painful for me to look at these pictures. They evoke feelings of life and death. I can hear the sounds of women running through hallways and someone shouting, “Meds, meds, come and get your meds.” I can hear the crying of a woman being locked down in restraints. I can hear the music of the jukebox at the once-a-week dance with the women of Ward 81 and the men of Wards 82 and 83. Bill’s book brings me back to the haunted cell in which I slept in a deserted ward right next to Ward 81. I swear I heard people walking above me all night. This was so puzzling because the floor was not occupied. Bill’s images confirm the feeling that I always had—that Ward 81 was and still is inhabited by many ghosts. ‘ (Source)

Diodato states that this book is about the “demise of institutional services’ and it’s effect on women.” When Diodato visited both he and Warden Marvin Fickle knew he would be the last person to document the infamous closed-off Ward 81.

c/o Ward 81 is more focused than Payne’s one stop of many on his tour US psychiatric hospitals and it is more intentional than Maisel’s context-giving shots that rightly or wrongly have formed the backdrop to Library of Dust. Diodato is paying homage to the cultural impact of golden-age documentary photography as much as the site itself.

“The physical crumbling and decaying cells, represent the end of old, corrupt, poorly-run asylums and bring about a sense of closure for the women of Ward 81,” explained Diodato by email. But I can’t help think that’s a superimposition of idea upon the images. Mark’s refuted allegations poor treatment of patients in some interviews, yet talks of “hauntings” in the book intro quoted above. OSH did become known for substandard mental health care provision, but was it a constant of the institution, over all its years?

In addition to being a requiem to the occupants, residents and survivors of OSH, Diodato’s images are a requiem to public awareness.

The silenced and invisible lives of the population within OSH and similar facilities is a shameful past. Diodato’s images represent for me a breakdown in social responsibility for one another. How else can we explain OSH’s unclaimed remains for over 5,000 individuals? Families wrote their relatives out of family history just as the old asylums of the 19th and 20th century allowed the public to erase patients from the social fabric.

© Bill Diodato

© Bill Diodato

© Bill Diodato

Oregon State Hospital was demolished in 2008. A new era and a new regime of treatment and control is to be established upon completion of the new proposed complex (below). What – if any – will be the photographer’s interaction with the new $458 million complex and its residents?


“Mary Ellen Mark – 25 Years” (1990) Pt. I and “Mary Ellen Mark – 25 Years” (1990) Pt. II

Interview: Mary Ellen Mark on Photography (Oregonian)

Interview: The Unfiltered Lens of Mary Ellen Mark

Mona Dancing with a Man, 1976. © Mary Ellen Mark.