Chris Payne Asylum Book
ASYLUM: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

We tend to think of mental hospitals as “snake pits”—places of nightmarish squalor and abuse—and this is how they have been portrayed in books and film. Few Americans, however, realize these institutions were once monuments of civic pride, built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians, who envisioned the asylums as places of refuge, therapy, and healing.

For more than half the nation’s history, vast mental hospitals—some of the largest structures ever built in America—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. But in the second half of the twentieth century, after the introduction of psychotropic drugs and policy shifts toward community-based care, patient populations declined dramatically, leaving many of these massive buildings neglected and abandoned.

Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals is a collection of large-format photographs taken by photographer Chris Payne, who was granted unprecedented access to seventy institutions in thirty states between 2002 and 2008. Through his lens we see palatial exteriors designed by famous architects and crumbling interiors never intended to be seen again. He shows how the hospitals functioned as self-contained communities, where almost everything of necessity was produced on site: food, water, power, and even clothing and furniture.  Since many of these places no longer exist, his photographs serve as their final, “official” record.

Accompanying the contemporary views are historic plans, drawings, and photographs, as well as an essay by world-renowned author and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, who describes his own experience working at a state mental hospital. Sacks pays tribute to Payne's photographs and to the lives once lived in these places, “where one could be both mad and safe”.