Jon Crispin's Notebook


Born in a log cabin in Western Pennsylvania, I have been a photographer for a long time.  Every once in a while I see things that others might find interesting.  Thanks for looking.

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  1. Emily Trexler said, on 02/11/2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Jon,

    Thank you for your photographs of the asylum patients’ suitcases. I suspect that the reason you have some empty suitcases and some filled ones in the collection is because the patients were able to use whatever the contents of the empty suitcases, but anything that remains was probably never touched or seen again. As you may know, cosmetics, jewelry, glass or other hard or sharp objects are not allowed in past or present mental health facilities. Also, I understand where you’re coming from regarding the last names of the patients, but I think it is very important to maintain the anonymity of the patients and their families since they cannot directly consent to participating in your project.

    • joncrispin said, on 03/11/2011 at 10:56 am

      Emily, you are absolutely correct about the cases. I only just confirmed this yesterday, but these people almost certainly had access to their things while at Willard. As far as the names, I have my opinion, and I totally respect yours. I need to keep reminding myself that I am just a photographer. I am very happy to facilitate a discussion about this issue, but am working hard to remain neutral. I really appreciate your input. Best, Jon

  2. punkrocktacos said, on 02/11/2011 at 7:33 pm

    very awesome! i respect your work.

  3. Dan said, on 02/11/2011 at 11:36 pm

    In regards to suitcase #4: just on a quick look over of the items, it would appear they are for use with leather. Whether it is leather working in general or, more specifically, the decorative carving of leather, it is hard to say.
    In addition, the “tweezers” with the ivory top that you point out are calipers, used to make even edge lines, transfer measurements without using a ruler or scribing a circle.

    • Dan said, on 02/11/2011 at 11:40 pm

      I’m sorry, that would be case #6 for “Maude K”. My mistake.

  4. Virginia Marchlinski said, on 03/11/2011 at 7:51 pm

    Thank you. These are so evocative. I, too, am interested in things left behind, indications of events, processes. Very beautiful.

  5. Kimberly said, on 29/11/2011 at 7:38 pm

    I find these photographs to be both beautiful and fascinating. I looked at case #6 and thought that perhaps the tools were used for printmaking, more specifically, linoleum block cutting. That may also explain the presence of the inks but they could also be attributed to leather work that Dan suggested. I agree that the “tweezers” are actually a caliper which is used to transfer measurements (and/or design) from one item to another.

  6. LP (@jersiestcity) said, on 04/12/2011 at 7:23 pm

    What a wonderful project. I love that you are acting as a caretaker for these forgotten items. It struck me as I was looking at these that I really craved some visual cataloging of the items in the suitcases, some standard format for displaying them that you repeat for each set of items. Perhaps you could lay out the entire collection, hang the clothes on hangers from nails on the wall, arrange them so that the viewer can make sense of them all and it reads like a complete collection, all accounted for. As it is I spend time trying to decipher what the individual items are, and I think the unsorted pile might not have as much visual punch as it could have. If it were all catalogued, it would be easy to see at a glance how small or messy or esoteric it was; it would add up to so much more, it would at a glance let you see the sum of what is left of this person’s life; it would have that much more impact.

    Also, and obviously this is just my opinion, you might try lighting these less harshly. Of course I don’t know what the limitations of your set-up are, but with more and slightly softer light sources, you could keep the diagnostic museum quality of these images but add a depth of feeling, like the interior of one of Cornell’s boxes. (Ok, maybe not THAT much feeling.)

    I eagerly look forward to seeing your next discoveries in these cases. Thanks for this good work…

  7. AJ said, on 05/12/2011 at 9:18 pm

    By who and when were the cases wrapped?

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 9:24 pm

      They were wrapped and catalogued by the New York State Museum. See earlier posts on this blog for the history. Jon

  8. Peach Farm Studio said, on 10/12/2011 at 2:02 am

    Hi Jon, thank you for all of your wonderful posts. You are on our top favorite 15 blogs list here: Thank you!

  9. natashaluxe (@natashaluxe) said, on 22/12/2011 at 10:28 pm

    hi jon! i adore the suitcase photos and thought i would ask you some camera specs…i am looking at my first digital slr, thinking a canon t3i with the es 18-135mm lens to start rather than the kit lens (18-55mm, lower quality kit lens) i am sure i will need to get more lenses in the future, but i want something that will allow me to shoot in natural light, get great detal on portraits, kitty photos, and my product photos (mainly knitwear and fine art) any thoughts? p.s. i’m from pgh, are you really from western pa? where from?
    natasha fialkov

    • joncrispin said, on 23/12/2011 at 9:27 am

      Natasha, thanks for your comment and question. Most of the kit lenses on entry lever dslrs are ok but fall behind in one key area. They don’t allow much light in, and shooting in natural light indoors can mean very slow shutter speeds. One option would be to look at some of the newer micro fourthirds cameras like the Panasonic G3. It is much smaller than the canon and the image quality is amazing. Most of my posts here (except for the suitcases) are shot with a Panasonic GF1. The zooms are still on the slower side (f 3.5-4.5) but are lighter and easier to hand hold. Just a thought. I appreciate how difficult it is to fork over lots of $ on something that is so unknown. What I advise everyone about cameras is to go to a shop and physically hold several models and see which one feels best in your hands and seems the most user-friendly. / And I am from Meadville, PA and went to high school just east of Pittsburgh. One of my favorite cities.

  10. Peach Farm Studio said, on 25/02/2012 at 11:59 am

    Hi Jon, This is just a little update to let you know we’ve completed printing a letterpress broadside of the poem “Signs” related to your Willard Suitcases project. Here’s the related post: Oh, yes, and good luck with working out a New York book publishing deal!

  11. charlotte cooperstein said, on 08/03/2012 at 4:05 am

    Couldn’t sleep found you in a “happiness is” E-mail. Thank you for a serene hour of looking at these lovely photos

  12. AJ said, on 31/03/2012 at 10:52 pm

    Jon when were the suitcases wrapped? Recently or when the hospital closed? What do they plan on doing with the suitcases?

    • joncrispin said, on 06/11/2012 at 3:54 pm

      AJ, great questions. The cases are part of the permanent collection of the New York State Museum. They were wrapped over a period of many months when the contents of each case were catalogued and preserved. That took place in the past few years. Thanks for your interest. Jon

  13. Payton said, on 06/11/2012 at 3:49 pm

    The “suitcases” are wonderful personal stories. I was reminded of so many things — the Holocaust Museum in Washington where the suitcases are piled high, but no stories about their contents, as the Nazis sorted all the contents into piles. I was reminded too, of old hotels like the Drake here in Toronto, where time transformed hotels near railway stations into “booze cans” where many mentally ill and those suffering from addictions played out their lives.
    Social historians, for lack of “original source material”, gravitate to what they find in books, census data. But
    these photos are an amazing snapshot of their loves, values and interests. What would each of our suitcases contain?
    This is worthy of a travelling exhibition. Completely fascinating.

    • joncrispin said, on 06/11/2012 at 3:51 pm

      Payton, thank you so much for your great comment. I really appreciate your interest in the project and how you connected it to other historical references. All the best, Jon

  14. Jen said, on 08/11/2012 at 3:46 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful photographs – I found your site through the suitcases article, but stayed for all the other beautiful photographs, and also for the ‘small world’ coincidences. The photo of you in Dillsburg at the diner (I’m guessing that was Wolfe’s Diner?), which is just down the road from where I grew up, and the fact that you are involved in the Tilghman project, which was funded in part by the agency I work for – funny how worlds collide.

    • joncrispin said, on 08/11/2012 at 4:37 pm

      Jen, thanks. That actually is not Wolfe’s. I used to go there all the time but this one is about a mile south (I forget the name). You might remember that on the sign in front of Wolfe’s it used to say “free maps to Ike’s farm”. Just to be kind of a nitwit I used to regularly ask for one, and they always looked at me like I was from another planet. They hadn’t had them for years. And the Tilghman project is amazing. Peter Carroll is editing the second film now and it will be easily as good as the first one. Do you work for the State? Anyway, thanks a ton for your interest. With best wishes, Jon

      • Jen said, on 13/11/2012 at 2:44 pm

        Ah, I’ll have to go on a diner hunt next time I’m up! And yes, I work for the state – I’m excited to see the next Tilghman film, and I understand work on the 3rd piece of the project is going well. Thanks again.

  15. Vanessa said, on 28/01/2013 at 5:41 pm

    I can’t engineer a response from where I was when seeing the pic, but there is a shot of a red-coated woman (in MSND) with her hand to the forefront. One other woman in the shot. What a hand that is!

  16. thejoyofcaking said, on 20/02/2013 at 10:31 pm

    Jon, I just found your site. I first viewed some of the Willard patients suitcases when they were on exhibit at the NYS Muesuem of History in Albany, NY. The exhibit was so thought provoking. In 2011, I was fortunate enough to take a public tour of Willard, during the tour I took a lot of photos and wrote a blog post about it. I never expected the huge amount of interest that post has garnered. I wish you much success with your photo exhibit – it’s great!

  17. Richard Sampson said, on 26/02/2013 at 12:16 am

    Hey Jon,

    I got here by way of Slate. I have to ask — at times, this must have been heartbreaking at certain times. How did it affect you? Was there a particular case that was particularly painful for you?

    Great job. Very, very thought-provoking and artful.

    • joncrispin said, on 26/02/2013 at 7:18 am

      Good morning Richard, Thanks for your comment and question. It was heartbreaking at times. But my overall feeling was one of being in awe of the whole project. I still can’t believe the cases were preserved by the staff of Willard, saved by the New York State Museum, and accessible to me to photograph. I am very lucky to have this experience.

  18. SlateFollower said, on 26/02/2013 at 11:40 am

    Jon, I also just learned about your amazing project from Slate – it is deeply moving, and I am very glad that you have taken up this mission. What I like most about your project is that it humanizes people with mental illness — they are people, not freaks, which is how so many of these people were treated for so many years. I hope your work will continue to emphasize that people owned these belongings – even though we don’t know who they are, and if we do we can’t say – they cared about little things, like carved dogs and cosmetic cases. They may have had hopes and dreams that could never be fulfilled due to their illness, and maybe the everyday things in their suitcases were their only comforts. Even though people can choose what to put in their suitcases, having mental illness is never a choice. I am eager to follow your work in this project.

  19. Jen said, on 14/05/2013 at 8:57 am

    In the vein of forgotten belongings and what you take with you and what you leave behind, have you heard about the abandoned Parisian apartment that was recently discovered?

  20. Lorine McGinnis Schulze said, on 12/06/2013 at 9:43 am

    Jon, your photographs of the Willard Suitcases are beautiful. I blogged about your project today at I can’t stop poring over the photos, such a poignant story they tell! As a genealogist I wish the names of the owners could be revealed so that they can be brought back to life and recognized for what they may have endured.

  21. Mike Mercier said, on 18/03/2014 at 11:55 pm

    Jon, I have recently discovered your beautiful work on the suitcases of Willard.
    It has evoked some old memories. My wife was a patient when Willard closed in 1995. Not too long before, Gov. Mario Cumo saw fit to declare ALL State facilities be smoke free. The buildings had controlled smoking rooms with serious ventilation and ‘smoke-eaters’ but the were ordered closed. Instead, the staff had to now take the patients outside at regular intervals for smoke breaks. I have a VIVID memory of the elderly patients in the next building being led out in the cold so they could have a smoke. They so looked forward to those breaks…they had little else to look forward to but bureaucracy had to stamp that out. I wonder how many got sick from those frigid trips outdoors. I’m sure they had suitcases up in the attic. So sad but thank you for giving us a glimpse into their lives.

  22. Maureen said, on 24/03/2014 at 8:28 am

    In today’s Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor features the poet Ferlinghetti and opens with the following:
    It’s the birthday of the poet, publisher, and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti (books by this author), born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father died five months before Ferlinghetti was born, and his mother was so devastated by the loss that she had to be committed to the state mental hospital. Young Lawrence was sent to live with his aunt in France.

    I immediately wondered if his mother was sent to Willard.

  23. Kate said, on 28/03/2014 at 6:36 am

    Jon – I saw an article on your suitcase project…and just now some tags to Meadville PA and the name Crispin. Need to call my dad (Dick Overmyer) for a review on why the name rings a bell. In any case – what a beautiful!!! and important work with the asylum suitcases. I look forward to reading and learning more…I am learning about deaf history right now and many of deaf and hard of hearing children and adults were sent to asylums and never had a chance at residential deaf schools, which were not a walk in the park either. take care, Kate (Overmyer) Cooper

    • joncrispin said, on 28/03/2014 at 9:10 am

      Kate, your dad’s name rings a bell with me as well. What is the Meadville connection? Thanks for your kind words about the suitcases. Best, Jon

  24. elisa said, on 19/06/2014 at 7:03 am

    Jon, I recently came across your suitcase project here: I was completely captivated and awed! I admire your work and your reverence for the suitcases and their owners. Thank you for being such a fine steward of this amazing adventure. I feel sad that I was not following you from the beginning but I’m glad to read back in your archives and catch up. And will follow going forward…. Wishing you the best.

  25. Sheryl Lechner said, on 25/12/2014 at 5:04 pm

    When I was a psychology major at Cornell (1978-1982) it was a required field work practicum to work with the patients at Willard. I would be happy to share some recollections if that would help your research. Please email me if so. This looks like a fabulous project.

  26. Hello there!

    Thank you so much for your kind email. It truly made my day. Your blog is fascinating, especially your suitcase project which is interesting and beautiful all at once.

    Take care

  27. M. Nebulous said, on 11/08/2015 at 12:11 pm

    You went and you smeared ‘s%&T’ into the lives and families of the tormented mentally ill of the patients and their families, (they are already outcast, like a freak sideshow’ ..and then declared ‘oh wait, look, isn’t it pretty?’ …all the while convincing your readers that it is ‘sweet smelling’ and you go out of your way to ‘protect your greatness’ by remarking to remember to never forget that you are ‘just a photographer’ …and it is as though you were some great surgeon that just removed a cancerous tumor.

    I find this work disgusting, utterly and completely. Why not just dig up graves and display the skeletons in cemeteries. …and oh yes, … ‘careful we tread, lest we invoke the wraths of spirits’

    bah humbug.

  28. Robert said, on 27/04/2017 at 8:26 pm

    Do you have any more pictures from the Attica Riot?

    • joncrispin said, on 28/04/2017 at 9:55 am

      Robert, I didn’t shoot anything of the riot, just the artifacts. Thanks, Jon

  29. Katie G. said, on 02/11/2017 at 12:40 pm

    Hi Jon! I love your pictures. I wanted to let you know that the game you posted called Tu-Tee is a version of a game I used to play with my grandmother named Cootie. When you look up Cootie online you can get a little more info.

    Keep up the great work!

    Katie G.

  30. alongthewayj316 said, on 18/01/2018 at 3:51 pm

    Hi Jon, I am just fascinated by your suitcase project…you are doing a lovely job with it. Did you contact the NY State Museum to request access to those suitcases? Or how did you get started? Thanks so much.

    • joncrispin said, on 29/01/2018 at 4:02 pm

      Dear Along, thanks for your kind note about the suitcases project. It was through the State Musuem that I was given access to the collection, and it wasn’t always a smooth collaboration, as for some period of time the lawyers got involved and I was shut out. I had seen an exhibit in 2004 of a few of the cases and was inspired to photograph. Wishing you all best and thanks for the question. Jon

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