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 will be talking about the Willard Suitcases project at the Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca, NY on Thursday, 24th October. Craig Williams will also be there and it should be a fun evening. The event will take place in the Borg Warner room at 6.00 PM and is, of course, open to the public. It would be a good chance to meet those of you who live in central New York and can attend.
I like this photograph from John C’s case as it shows how carefully the staff at the New York State museum worked to preserve these delicate objects. I have just uploaded his suitcase to the willardsuitcases.com site, so you can now see what else John had with him at Willard.
I have always given primary credit to Craig Williams for saving the Willard suitcases, and his contribution to the preservation of these objects was enormous. But if it wasn’t for Beverly Courtwright’s connection to Willard and her tremendous respect for the patients and their lives, the cases would have been lost forever. On Saturday I got the chance to meet her for the first time, and thanks to the corrections folks who now control the site, we were allowed to go into the attic for a few minutes. It is behind this door that in May of 1995 Bev “rediscovered” the cases. She had become one of the Willard employees heavily involved with the transition team responsible for shutting down the psych center. As a storehouse clerk, part of her task was to go through all the buildings to determine what should be saved and what could be thrown out. She described the first time she opened this door and saw the cases stacked up as a surreal experience, and told me that she felt a “whoosh of energy” sweep over her.
She grew up in the area, and as a child remembers Willard patients coming to her home through the Family Care program that allowed for patients not in need of direct care to live temporarily in private homes.
This is what the attic now looks like when you walk through the door. The racks are on either side of the attic with men’s cases on one side and women’s on the other. When Bev was talking about being up here for the first time it literally gave me chills.
You can see the letters on the racks representing the first initial of the surname of each patient. Whomever set up the system did an amazing job. I find it so interesting that as in the residential parts of the buildings, men and women were segregated up here as well.
There were a very few items left behind that could not be linked to a specific patient. This coat was one of them. / As my work on this project continues, I am constantly overwhelmed by the people I meet and the stories that they have to tell. Late last night I got an email letting me know of a new comment on this post. Scroll down toward the bottom of the comments section and read what Stephanie had to say. / Getting into the attic and meeting Bev really tied together everything that I have been trying to say with my work on this project. She is a truly remarkable person with a huge heart and the ability to convey a great sense of connection to the people who were at Willard, and I just want to thank her for all she has done.
On Monday I shot the last of the Willard suitcases for a while. I hope to use the rest of this month to begin editing the images for the Exploratorium exhibit, and knowing how my brain works I knew I couldn’t attempt to edit while I was still shooting. I was surprisingly emotional about the whole thing; an important part of the project ended and I am not sure when it might resume. It is also significant to me that it marks the end of the Kickstarter phase of this work. So some thank you’s are in order. I could NEVER have gotten this far without Kickstarter and the incredible support of the almost 700 people who backed me. Thanks to Alex Ross for the long term “loan” of his lights and soft boxes. He is a true friend. Craig Williams and the New York State Museum gave me access to the cases and Craig’s support was instrumental in keeping it all moving along. And Peggy Ross kept me organized. Without her help in unwrapping, setting up the shots, helping me see things I would have missed, and putting the objects back where they belong I would never have made it through as many of the cases as I did.
I will work on a post later today showing the last case in the queue, as it were. It was a great one to end on.
I have been spending a lot of time in Albany photographing the cases. I have been a bit overwhelmed lately and have had a hard time deciding what to post as an update. There is so much material and most of it is fascinating. I have been averaging at least one shoot a week, and it still feels that I have a long way to go.
Just as a case this one is nice. Very well made and quite stylish.
It belonged to Steffan K. (although his first name was spelled differently on some items. On one envelope from a druggest it was written as Steve.)
I especially appreciated the way that the staff wrapped and preserved the items.
My interest in the wrappings and the bows has actually increased. The three women that did most of the work each had a different style. Sarah Jastremsky, Christine Allen, and Karen Chambers worked for months going through the cases cataloguing and then stabilizing each item. At some point I’ll get try to get together with them and find out who did what.
These items seem so personal to me. The calendar was from 1929.
I never intend to fetishize the items in the cases, but this clock just blew me away.
It is a very early example of a Westclox Big Ben. Steffan clearly brought it with him when he arrived at Willard, and my guess is that it never left the box. Both the box and the clock are in perfect condition. It just made me sad to think that it was packed to go to along with him and he might have never used it there.
As I spend more time with the suitcases and talk to people who worked at Willard, I am becoming quite convinced that the reason the cases were never thrown away is due to the fact that the employees developed close and lasting relationships to the patients. When they were discharged or died, the personal connection was so strong that it made it impossible to just toss them out. Anyway, that’s just my theory, and I know the whole issue of how the state chose to treat the mentally ill is a complicated one.
Thanks as usual to The New York State Museum, and especially Craig Williams for allowing me access to the cases and facilitating this project. And to Peggy Ross for her great help with the process of shooting and re-wrapping each case.
I couldn’t count the number of times that I have been on Interstate 90 in New York State. About 2 years ago, I started noticing this view from the Westbound lane just before the turnoff to Albany. There was something about the look of this rural road that always made me happy. About a year ago I knew that I wanted to photograph it, but stopping on the highway seemed a bit foolhardy. On Tuesday I was at the museum shooting suitcases and realized that I would have time to take a side trip on the way home. I have a New York State Atlas & Gazeteer in my car so I pulled it out an figured out where I could access this road. I am quite directionally challenged, but after some trial and error, I found the spot. The above view is taken from the bottom of Hanley Road where it forms a T with State Route 32. From where I took this picture it is Columbia County, but up the hill it becomes Rensselaer County. Coming from Albany, I went to the town of Nassau on Route 20, turned south on 203 and then left onto Hanley. It is really beautiful on the top part of the road; lovely farms with sizable ponds.
This view is looking West on SR 32. The semi is on the eastbound section of the 90. As I was heading home, I drove through the small town of Chatham and was happy to see a church that I had photographed for Craig Williams years ago.
This suitcase belonged to Mary W.
Hers was the second wicker case I photographed last Thursday.
As I have mentioned before, I haven’t any idea what I will find when I unwrap the cases. This one felt a bit heavier than others and when I opened it, it was mostly filled with fabric and lace that I am assuming Mary had made.
There was a lovely feel about the material as I unwrapped each piece.
A mark similar to the one above was on several of the towels. At first I thought it was a date, but I am not so sure.
I believe these tags are from Willard and not the museum. It looks like her case was entered into the system in the 1960s.
The detail on the lace pieces is beautiful.
Lots of interesting shapes and sizes.
Thursday was very productive. Mary had only the one case with the lace and towels, but I also shot 3 cases that belonged to another person. I’ll edit those photos and get them up soon. Many thanks to Peggy Ross who helped me rewrap the cases, and as usual to Craig Williams for all his support. If you are seeing these for the first time, please check out my project on Kickstarter.
I had a great day shooting Willard suitcases in Albany yesterday. I usually stop at the Donut Dip in West Springfield on my way out. The shop has been there since the ’50s and hasn’t changed much since then. I buy a dozen, eat one and let Craig distribute the rest to various people he works with at the museum. The volunteers at the front desk were the beneficiaries this time. Incredible donuts.
In 2008, I was asked by the New York State Museum to photograph the panels that lined the Fulton Street viewing area overlooking Ground Zero. The 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood were assembled and meant to act as a way to help keep people in line as they waited to view the site of the World Trade Center after the attacks of 11 September, 2001. Almost immediately people waiting on line started writing on the wood and attaching photos and other momentos in memory and support of the people who died that day. The panels were never meant to be permanent, but they became such an important document of the attacks that Craig Williams worked tirelessly to insure some record of their existence be created. The entire collection of panels was shipped to the museum’s Rotterdam, NY storage facility where we photographed each one. Since the writing was so small, and I was worried about the camera’s ability to resolve the all detail, I decided to shoot each panel in 3 sections and then stitch the images together to make one large file.
This is one of the hundreds of panels we worked on. Connie Houde has been assembling the images and the hope is that researchers will be able to access the complete archive in the near future. (Due to image size limitations of this blog it is nearly impossible to read the smaller writing, but in the original files everything is readable.) Connie made small prints of the entire layout and one day when I was visiting the museum, she laid them out on the floor of the hallway, all taped together. Amazing
At the time we were working on the Fulton Street panels, Craig mentioned that New Jersey had set up a similar viewing area on Liberty Island and that there might be a chance we could document those panels. It took a few years to organize, but this past year they were shipped to Hangar 17 at JFK Airport and we set to work again.
The plywood here had been painted white, which makes reading the text much easier. / So much credit should be given to Craig and his staff for finding the resources to do this work. Due to the instability of plywood and ballpoint pens and markers, fading has already begun; especially on the Fulton Street panels. In a few years, much of what has been written will become unreadable. It is now preserved and will be a great document to the events surrounding the attacks on the Trade Center.
I mentioned Hanger 17 earlier, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to spend quite a bit of time photographing the facility. It is where much of the steel from the buildings has been stored as well as many of the vehicles that were destroyed when the towers collapsed. I had planned to do a rather long post with photos of these artifacts, but when I was editing the pictures today, it just didn’t feel right. It is hard to describe the emotional impact just being around items that represent such a sad and emotional event. There is a certain reverence that one feels when surrounded by so much intensity, and it felt kind of bad to be exploiting it. Maybe someday I’ll do something with them. I made a couple of 360 degree panoramas of the interior of the hangar, and it might be nice to post them here so that people can see what it looked like before most of the steel was distributed around the country. / I’d encourage you all on this 10th anniversary of the attack to think about the people who died, along with their friends and families.
I’m not sure yet where I am going with this project, but I wanted to post some shots for feedback. / In 1995, the New York State Museum staff were moving items out of The Willard Psychiatric Center. It was being closed by the State Office of Mental Health, and would eventually become a state run drug rehabilitation center. Craig Williams was made aware of an attic full of suitcases in the pathology lab building. The cases were put into storage when their owners were admitted to Willard, and since the facility was set up to help people with chronic mental illness, these folks never left.
The Museum made arrangements to have the suitcases moved to the Rotterdam storage facility, where staff have catalogued each one, and have carefully wrapped and preserved their contents.
An exhibit of a selection of the cases was produced by the Museum and was on display in Albany in 2003 or 2004. It has also traveled around New York State. It was very moving to read the stories of these people, and to see artifacts from their lives before they became residents of the Asylum.
This particular case belonged to Freda B…..(I would really like to use her whole name here, but there is a massive debate going on as to whether people who have been at Willard and other psyc centers need to be protected by privacy laws. I come down strongly on the side that it is dehumanizing and stigmatizing to pretend that she doesn’t have a surname.)
I am so interested in these cases. I like the idea of documenting the care and energy that the Museum has put into them. And I am totally wigged out by being able to photograph a representation of the lives of people who struggled so much to make it in a very stressful and confusing world.
It is still early days, and I am struggling a bit as to how I should approach this. The cases have been photographed before, but in a totally different manner. The first hurdle seems to be cleared; I have access. The next is time, which I think I can manage. The big one is funding, which is something on which I need to work. And finally, what could come out of the project. An exhibit would be nice, or maybe a book.
I have been working on some ideas with Dr Karen Miller, a writer and psychiatrist. She has also been spending time with the cases, and doing research on the lives of people who were at Willard. We’ll see what happens.
In the meantime, feel free to send this link around to anyone who might be interested. And any feedback would be appreciated.