We had a very productive day shooting in Rotterdam yesterday. Again, most of the cases were largely empty, but there was still some interesting things to notice. You can see the outline of the handle in dust from when the suitcase was stored in the racks at Willard. I like how the museum staff left it as they found it before wrapping it up for storage.
This was all that we found in the case. The New York Central luggage tag is beautiful.
This is what was written on the reverse site. When I showed it to Peggy, she got a chill. We both often react that way when the real life of the person is shown to us through their possessions. Mary had a suitcase, she travelled, and at one time, she lived at 417 W. Main Street in Waterloo, NY.
I have been uploading more cases to the willardsuitcases.com site. This is a photograph from Ausbourne G’s possessions. He brought a good collection of tools with him to Willard in a nice wooden box. / I am making good progress on getting all the cases online, and will continue to upload more as time allows.
I have set up a Twitter account for those of you who would like updates on a more regular basis. Check it out at @willardsuitcase (no s). And I have also set up a Tumblr site which I have linked to this wordpress site. willardsuitcases.tumblr.com This is the first post where I have linked to both, so let’s hope it all works. Any feedback is appreciated.
Earlier today I uploaded Agnes J’s case to the willardsuitcases.com site. (Go to “The Cases” and click the link on her name.) She is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that her satchel contained a wealth of correspondence that revealed so much about her life. Hers was the first case that I shot with so much personal information.
There is a line in the letter below that explains so much about her being sent to Willard.
“But don’t come back to the Y.W. and threaten to kill that girl again–that’s what put you where you are now.” Chilling and so sad.
She started this letter to President Hover [sic] while she was a patient at Warren State Hospital which is very near to where I grew up.
So please check out her two cases on the suitcases site. And I’d like to welcome all the new readers to this site. Something was published somewhere on the net that linked to my project, and I have been getting lots of interesting emails from people in the past few days. If you want to see all of my wordpress posts about the project, just click here, and welcome.
Gordon K was admitted to Willard in September of 1962. The inner lining of his small grip was different than most we have seen. More like flannel than anything else.
This morning Cris was reading the news on her computer and forwarded this story to me. I couldn’t help but think about the Willard cemetery, and the work that Colleen Spellecy is doing at the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project and that Lin Stuhler is doing at her Inmates of Willard site. After watching the piece, I was curious about how the group was able to get names from the state.
At times I struggle a bit with most of the long-term projects on which I spend a great deal of time and energy. I realize that it is a normal part of the process, and having questions about what I am trying to do actually gives me a chance to think and, I hope, eventually get some answers.
During the first phase of this work, most of the cases that I was shooting were quite full of items that folks brought with them to Willard. Craig Williams rightly thought that since my time was limited, I should concentrate on the most “interesting” cases. Once I became committed to a complete documentation of all of the roughly 430 suitcases, I realized that most of the ones that I hadn’t shot were empty. But empty is a relative term here. In addition to the paper tags that identify the owner of each case, there is a beauty in the suitcase itself, and in the fabric lining, and in the straps designed to hold people’s clothing secure during transit. Occasionally there will be some other random object; a hair pin, a button, a luggage tag, a newspaper clipping.
On Monday I was beginning to think that my interest in these empty cases was somewhat misplaced. The project had gotten so much attention early on, and I understand that it was due primarily to what the cases contain, and what those contents say about the individuals that own them. While shooting, I was feeling that fewer people would be interested in the empty ones, and I was bothered by that. I thought about it a lot during my drive home from Rotterdam, and I began to remember what I always talk about when speaking about art and creativity. Ultimately, the only reason to create art is to please the person who is creating it. If others are affected by it, that is a huge bonus. All I know right now is that I look at the photographs I took of this case and I see a life. I see that her name was Elizabeth and that she came to Willard on 30 November, 1951. I see that she had a beautiful leather suitcase, and that someone in her family had the name Mary. And I am really moved by this and hope to be able to move others when they look at these pictures.
So I am really jazzed about continuing. The video for the next Kickstarter appeal is done and I have to decide when to get it up and running. Right now I am thinking that early to mid January is the time, and I will certainly post about it here. In the meantime, thank you all for following the project. I really appreciate the comments and emails that come my way.
I really liked this case when I shot it on Wednesday. It belonged to Mabel Y. The pattern on it is actual weave as opposed to a fake print pattern made to look like weave. It, like many of the suitcases, has no means to support the top when opened, so Peg and I are constantly coming up with some way to hold it upright for the photograph.
Here is one of our usual tricks. My parents gave me this thermos for my birthday at least 30 years ago. I always make a pot of milky tea for the drive over to Rotterdam, and since the storage facility is very chilly in the Winter months it is great to have something warm during the day. The laser beam sticker comes from my great friend Peter Carroll who seems to pick up things like this on occasion. / You can see Peg in the background working on her computer. She created an amazing database into which we can enter all the pertinent information about each case, its contents, and the owner. She is doing her best keeping me and the project organized, and I am so grateful for her help and support.
It has been quite a while since I have posted a suitcases update. There is a lot going on, and I finally have a bit of a breather. I have been shooting at least one day a week in Rotterdam, and some weeks I have managed two full days.
On Tuesday, Peter Carroll came out from Ithaca and we shot video for the upcoming Kickstarter 2 appeal. It will be several weeks before it is even close to be up and running (pending Kickstarter approval), but I have been thinking a great deal about how to go about the whole thing.
I have a natural aversion to asking for financial support for my independent projects, and it is a bit of a struggle for me to think about how to begin this process all over again. After the shoot, I was talking to my son Peter, and he had some great words of encouragement, especially the idea that I would never be asking for a second round of support if the first one wasn’t so successful in getting folks interested in the suitcases.
And what really keeps me going is that in doing this work, I have helped to create and incredible community of people who are invested in the completion of the project.
Peg Ross and I have been so productive in the last two months. We have a system set up that allows us to be super efficient. In one two day period alone we managed to shoot almost 30 cases. Most of these were partially to completely empty, but I have come to feel that it is just as important to document these suitcase as the ones that are full.
These license plates are a good example. Along with the paper tag, these were the only objects in Robert Y’s case. Amazing.
Stuert B’s case was filled with these bathroom products. This is the second container of Dr. Lyon’s Tooth Powder we have come across.
I love the Mennen logo on the top of the talcum container. Beautiful.
I have also been able to upload a few more suitcases to “The Cases” section of willardsuitcases.com. Check it out if you get the chance and please stay in touch. It means so much to me to get feedback.
I was at Yale today talking about the suitcases to Jessica Helfand’s freshman seminar class on visual biography. She was one of the first people to connect with the project and has been a huge supporter from the get-go. This is the third year I have spoken to the class and it always helpful to get feedback from the students on my work with the cases. / After the class I usually head over to the School of Medicine Library and visit The Cushing Center. It is one of the most amazing displays of someone’s life one can ever see. I have posted about it here and here, and if any of you are in New Haven, it is absolutely not to be missed. / Thanks to Jessica and her students for a great day.
The New York State Museum did an amazing job conserving and cataloguing the suitcase collection. Three staffers did most of the work. Sarah Jastremsky, Christine Allen, and Kara Chambers worked for months on the project, and they each had their own style of wrapping. I have never been able to tell who did which case, but they all did an amazing job. This particular case represents one of those distinctive styles. / Peg and I always try very hard to return the suitcases to their original condition once we are done shooting.
And it is she who does most the work in this regard. Here is the result of rewrapping Leo R’s case; very close to the original and equally effective. She looks very proud and happy in this picture, as well she should. / From time to time I mention Peg in these posts and it bears saying again that I would have a very hard time doing this work without her help. She deserves a lot of the credit for what you see here and on willardsuitcases.com and I am so grateful that she is a partner on the project.
Leo’s case was one of many leather grips that we have photographed. There wasn’t much in it, but what was there was great. You can see by the label that he was admitted on 25 June, 1954.
I have never seen a Vaseline tube in this color. I wish they would have kept using it, as it is a shade of green that knocks me out.
I have been adding more cases to the suitcases site. Eleanor G’s just went up, which one of the larger collections of photographs. I’ll have more posted by the end of the week, just click on “The Cases” at the top of the page. Thanks for checking it out.