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Taj Mahal and train in Agra, 1983. Credit Steve McCurry

I had a disagreement with a friend last week about whether Teju Cole writes well about photography. I think he does. My friend thinks he’s a very talented writer and critic but much prefers Cole’s books above his criticism. We agreed to disagree and left it at that.

I don’t know what the final verdict on Cole will be, but I sure did enjoy his skewering of Steve McCurry and Coldplay—bland, bland men—in a single article. For me, it only strengthens the argument that he’s a good writer on photography.

From A Too-Perfect Picture

In McCurry’s portraits, the subject looks directly at the camera, wide-eyed and usually marked by some peculiar­ity, like pale irises, face paint or a snake around the neck. And when he shoots a wider scene, the result feels like a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so. Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring.

[McCurry’s] photographs in “India,” all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators.


The song [Hymn for the Weekend] is typical Coldplay, written for vague uplift but resistant to sense (“You said, ‘Drink from me, drink from me’/When I was so thirsty/Poured on a symphony/Now I just can’t get enough”). […] The video is a kind of exotification bingo, and almost like a live-action version of Steve McCurry’s vision: peacocks, holy men, painted children, incense. Almost nothing in the video allows true contemporaneity to Indians. They seem to have been placed there as a colorful backdrop to the fantasies of Western visitors.

It’s not so much the point that McCurry is old-hat, but that the point is made with so much panache. If I’d written such luscious take downs, I’d cart myself into retirement, all happy-like. Good stuff.

Cole, however, has other ideas. He’s not opposed to outsiders taking photos of India. He points out that Mary Ellen Mark made telling portraits of prostitutes in Mumbai which presented, with a new sensibility and focus, an ignored community.


Kemps Corner, Mumbai, 1989. Credit Succession Raghubir Singh

Ultimately, the article is a celebration of Raghubir Singh, who is the best example of an Indian photographing India. The article is Cole’s call for us to (permanently?) redirect (all?) our energies from the photographs of McCurry and those of every fetishizing (white) (usually male) photographer who has mimicked McCurry, toward the photography of practitioners such as Singh and other cracking Indian photographers. Cole names them: Ketaki Sheth, Sooni Taraporevala, Raghu Rai and Richard and Pablo Bartholomew.

I mean, really, in a world replete with images made by folks in every corner of the globe, is there any defense for the space taken up by McCurry?

Read A Too-Perfect Picture

Reentry in Los Angeles

Darlene Escalante with her grandmother, Veronica, she is on a home visit that she earned at Walden House. Darlene talks about how both parents were in prison and affiliated with gangs. As young girl, she remembers going to Chino State Prison to visit her father. When her mother went to prison too, Darlene’s grandmother took her to make visits. “Both my grandmother and my mother were drug addicts. In 1989, my dad died after he changed his life, he was a nurse. He was gunned down and shot nine times. I want so much to change my life now, that’s why I came to Walden House. I don’t want to continue this horrible legacy that has existed in my family.” Los Angeles, 2008. From the series Re-entry.


A long time ago Joseph Rodriguez and I chatted. An edited version of the conversation just made the webs.

If you know Joe, you know he’s not short of words. We covered a lot, but given Mark Ellen Mark‘s recent passing, I wanted to highlight this anecdote with which Joe closed the interview.

I was shy. I gotta tell you. I did it at ICP. Going to school there was amazing. I remember Salgado looking at my pictures, and all I could do was photograph my life as a taxi driver. I was really very shy, and I just I wound up shooting through the windows a lot—stuff on the street. It was pretty cinematic, but he saw the pictures, and he didn’t say anything. I fucking blew it. That killed me!

Then I took a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark, and she was the one who really kicked my ass. She said, “You don’t believe in who you are.” I got defensive and said “What do you mean?”

“Well, you don’t believe in yourself as a photographer,” she said. So, she gave me this exercise. “When you get up in the morning in your underwear stand in front of the mirror and tell yourself you’re a photographer for 15 minutes.”

Doesn’t that sound a little hokey to you? Believe it or not, your boy did it, and I began to slowly believe more in myself as a photographer.

Now, I tell my students the same. If you don’t go out with reverence when you say you want to photograph somebody, they’re not going to take you seriously. You’re going to get a snapshot, nothing more.

I found photography in a very amateur way; it gave me happiness, gladness, and made me want to produce something that I was interested and excited about. To this day, though, I’m still nervous when I’ve got to go out and photograph.

Read the full conversation at the ICP website.


Homicide Detectives Dobine and Cedric Pacific Division. From the series LAPD.


The Quiles family at home. Ramiro and Danny from Marianna Maravilla, with their mother Aida, and sister Maria. East Los Angeles, CA, 1993. From the series East Side Stories.


Rampart Officers search the house of a family of a man who was shot by a gang member in his living room. They check the building for the suspect. From the series LAPD.

East Los Angeles, CA, 1993.

Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, CA, 1993. From the series East Side Stories.

Boyle Heights

A Clarence Gang member is hit with five bullets from an automatic weapon on the night of a gang truce in East Los Angeles. His fellow gang members rush him to the hospital. From the series East Side Stories.

From the series Juvenile.


Rampart Division Officers detaining an arrested woman. From the series LAPD.


A family gathers the round of the coffin of Thomas Regalado III, who was killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. East Los Angeles, CA 1992. From the series East Side Stories.

Officers responding to a domestic violence call.

Officers responding to a domestic violence call. From the series LAPD.

The minors are leaving the facility and are chained down for transporting. San Jose Juvenile hall. San Jose, California 1999. From the series Juvenile.

From the series Juvenile.

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.


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