Well, this seems to be it. This past Monday when we started our last day of shooting we expected to have just one remaining case with which to work. There were a few names on our master list that we didn’t photograph, but with a collection of over 400 suitcases, we figured that one or two were bound to be unaccounted for.
John M’s suitcase had just come back from the Exploratorium and we were eager to finish with his things. This woolen suit with two pair of trousers was unlike any other we had seen.
It was in pretty good shape, with the exception of this little hole. I don’t think it was a moth problem, but maybe he just caught it on a nail. Love the blue thread that runs through the weave.
We had shut off the strobes and were ready to pack up when we decided to look through the “institutional” items in the collection. (We are trying to decide whether or not to photograph these objects as well.) Peg spotted a box mixed in with the others that contained Lawrence R’s suitcase, so we fired everything up and got back to work.
Lawrence’s case was a really nice one. It contained quite a few letters, and some newspaper clippings. I like the headline here; “Cats Call Truce in War on Rats…” and there is a mention of goats underneath the photo. My friend Tania Werbizky is responsible for introducing me to Willard many years ago, and she loves both cats and goats. So this is a little thank you to her.
I also want to take a moment to give my heartfelt thanks the New York State Museum for allowing me access to the collection. But most of all I want to thank all of you who have been following along with me. I have learned so much from the comments you have posted, and from the very moving emails I have received from people who share with me their own struggles with mental health issues. And as I have said so many times before, I could not, and would not have been able to complete this work without the assistance and encouragement of Peggy Ross. She has added so much to all aspects of the project, and deserves the lion’s share of the credit.
Even though the shooting is finished, the work is far from over, and in some ways it is just the beginning. I will continuously be editing the photos and uploading them to the willardsuitcases.com site. I’ll continue to travel and speak about the suitcases and will be posting here where those talks are happening. There will undoubtedly be exhibits and I will be actively pursuing publishers. There has been so much call for a book, and am hopeful that a publisher will be found.
So, it is onward we go. Thank you all so much.
I have always liked the ephemeral aspects of this project. This would have been a Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit wrapper from the early part of the 20th Century. I am sure someone from Mars (owners of the brand) could date this one, but I couldn’t find a site that details the evolution of gum wrappers, so I would estimate somewhere between 1915 and 1925. Why he saved the chewed piece of gum in the silver paper next to the button is anyone’s guess.
Yesterday, we finished shooting Rodrigo’s things. In looking at our list, only one person remains. John M’s case is being sent back from The Exploratorium, and there is a good chance that it will be in Albany by next week. I went through a very emotional time some months ago while thinking about the shooting phase of the project ending. I think what I will miss most is the impact of opening the cases and feeling a very real connection to these people who were patients at Willard. The job of editing the photographs will be the next big push, and I am really looking forward to it. I am a bit behind on uploading to the willardsuitcases.com site, and am hoping to be able to devote several days a week to working on that.
Thanks for all the support and interest in the project, and especially to folks who are ordering prints from the site. Cheers.
I am especially taken by the labels that we find in the suitcases. These small bits of paper and string give us quite a bit of information about the patient as they were brought to Willard. In this case, W (we only have an initial) S (not allowed to use her surname) came to the institution on 16 November 1938. This is a rare case where the label is ripped, but even so, I have had to obscure part of her name.
I am aware that there is an active debate about this, but I come down firmly on the side that would have me able to include the patient’s full names with their possessions. The reason I am forbidden from naming patients has to do with specific New York State law about the privacy of people who were wards of the state. This law supersedes even the Federal HIIPA regulations, which state that 50 years after death, records are available to the public. In fact, many other states use full names in talking about former patients at asylums and psychiatric centers. I won’t go into all the reasons why I feel it is respectful to name the suitcase owners, as I am not so good at putting this kind of argument in writing. But someone contacted me last week who is really good at it.
Here is a link to a post on her site. I am grateful for all the nice things she said about me, but I am especially pleased that she was able to put into words something that I think about often; which is how to show respect to people who at one time in their lives were patients at Willard. So Nelly, thank you so much for your openness about your own situation and the clarity with which you expressed your feelings. I really appreciate it.
On Thursday, I made the trip from Western Massachusetts to Ovid, NY for my talk about the suitcases. I arrived late in the afternoon and the light was nice on the front of this lovely early 1960s building.
It is so great to see a library from this era that hasn’t been messed up by continuous “updating”.
The crowd of about 50 people who attended the event was fantastic. At the beginning of my talk I asked how many in the audience had been employees at Willard, and up went at least 10 hands. I always learn so much by being able to talk to folks who were intimately connected with the place. In fact, two very important facts came out during the question and answer. The first was that while the patients were at Willard, their suitcases and possessions were kept in storage on the same floor as their rooms. And they absolutely had access to their things. I get asked about this regularly; I think most people who see the project assume that once they came to the institution they were stripped of their belongings, which I now know not to be the case.
The other bit of information that I had never understood has to do with why the suitcases were kept by the institution. When a patient died, the State of New York contacted the families and were given two options. Send money to cover shipping costs or come to Willard and pick up the suitcases. We now know that neither of these things happened to approximately 400 deceased patients, which is why the collection exists today. Amazing. Thanks so much to the wonderful Peggy Ellsworth for clearing this up.
Before the Friday noon brown bag lunch at the library, I had the chance to go to the cemetery and walk around for a bit. It is always something I do when in the area, and connects me to the place in a very real way.
Recently I have been in contact with a nice gentleman who expressed an interest in Frank C. He was concerned that as a veteran, Frank was not accorded the proper respect in his burial. This brought up the subject of the section of the cemetery that contains the headstones of veterans who were patients at Willard. As you can see by the flags, there is someone making sure that this section is well tended. What is most interesting is that this is the only part of the cemetery where the patients are named, and headstones placed over the graves.
I hope to be updating the willardsuitcases.com site quite a bit this week, so check it out if you get the chance. Thanks for following.
Peggy and I have been making great strides in shooting the cases that were returned from the Exploratorium. Last week, we started in on Madeline C, and yesterday we worked on her books and papers.
Madeline’s life was very full before coming to Willard.
She was living in the New York City area, and taking classes at both Columbia and Hunter College. You can see her Hunter ID card in the photograph above.
Somehow, she became a patient at Central Islip Psychiatric Center, and it was pretty clear that it wasn’t a great place for her. We came across many letters that she wrote to doctors outside of the institution that were never mailed. This is something that we rarely found at Willard.
Peg and I were both very moved by Madeline’s possessions. She was highly educated, completely bi-lingual in French and English (the original spelling of her name was Madeleine, so we assume she was born in France), and lived a very stimulating life before she was institutionalized.
This is just a tiny selection of her papers and books. I could easily post 50 photographs of her things; something I will get to when I upload her to the willardsuitcases.com site. Which given the sheer volume of images, might be a while.
Thanks to all of you for hanging in there with me on this. I really think that I will be done with shooting in the next few weeks, and will move to spending at least a few days a week editing and uploading. I am hoping to find some sort of artist’s retreat where I could spend a month just working on the project. Any suggestions would be welcome.
Here is another example of a complication in one’s life that could possibly lead to time spent at Willard. It has not been unusual to find evidence of language problems in the lives of people who were patients there. Obviously, there must have been other factors in Michael’s situation that led him to Willard, but we have never seen such a direct link to language issues. (Michael was born Michele B in Italy.) The pink note should be readable, but if not, here is the text. “Please give this man something for his ear as he can not talk much english [sic] to make you understand what he wants.” Very sad, and I wonder what the writer meant by “something for his ear”. My first thought upon reading this was a reference to the Babel Fish which is featured in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide series of books.
Yesterday, we also photographed Lawrence Mocha’s suitcase. I will do a longer post about him in the next few days.
Thanks for following.
This is what is left of the handle on one side of Michael’s large trunk. Sadly, there is only a tiny remnant of the original Willard tag attached to a string, so there is no information about the date he arrived. But there is a ton of very interesting material in the collection, which I am really looking forward to photographing next Tuesday.
I will be doing a longer post with lots of photos next week. Until then, thanks for following.
Rodrigo was a reader. His collection of books was extensive and interesting.
He was also a bit of a writer. Below is a novel that he wrote that was part of his library.
It is interesting how he changed the dedication.
He must have been working with some sort of editor or teacher, as there are lots of corrections in red ink.
Some of his books were from his days at Salt Lake High School. The collected issues of the school publication “Red and Black” were among his books.
This was the only evidence of his byline that I could find.
Frustrating to have to obscure his surname.
There is so much amazing material here, and I have to keep reminding myself that I am just documenting the collection as a photographer, and not as a social historian. The temptation is to photograph everything that made his life so interesting, but I reckon I would never finish.
Peggy was especially helpful is setting up and organizing our work yesterday. Here is a shot of her cheerful presence in front of a setup for which she was largely responsible. Thanks Peg.
Peg and I started in on the returned Exploratorium cases yesterday, and it was great to get back to shooting.
Herman’s case was particularly interesting to me as most of his things related to photography. It will be somewhat difficult to read this label on a computer monitor, but it reveals quite a bit about him. He had been living in Sonyea, NY at the Craig Colony for Epileptics. Lin Stuhler’s site has a good description of Craig here. There is a note on this label stating “List of ??? [artifacts, contents?, I can’t quite read it] on reverse side of this cover”.
And here is that list. You can see Herman’s signature on the top sheet that acknowledges receipt.
There were three lenses in the case, including this lovely Bausch and Lomb Tessar.
This was the 1930s idea of a light meter.
The collection includes quite a bit of correspondence from The American School of Photography in Chicago. It seemed to be a well organized “learn at home” way of becoming a photographer. Since all of the envelopes that contained the promotional materials were addressed to Herman in Sonyea, NY, I have to assume that he was learning to be a photographer while living at the Craig Colony.
For me, Herman’s story is particularly touching, and not just because of the photography connection. I purposely don’t include too much of myself on this site, but sometimes I feel the need to open up a bit about the emotional impact of shooting these cases. Our son Peter is an amazing guy. He was a preemie, and spent months in the hospital after he was born. He has cerebral palsy and a history of epilepsy. He lives independently in DC and is a truly remarkable and inspirational person. I simply can’t imagine what his life would have been like had he been born in the 1920s, and when I think of Herman and his life in institutions, it breaks my heart.