When I started photographing the suitcases, I really had no idea what I was doing, or where the project would go. Very early on, Craig Williams introduced me to poet and psychiatrist Dr. Karen Miller, and it has been amazing to “share” the suitcases with her over the five plus years that we have had access to the collection. Because of her, I was included in the Exploratorium Exhibit in San Francisco, and because of her, I gained so much insight into the lives of the patients at Willard. She has illuminated the human side of the folks who, in many cases, lived their entire lives at the institution.
I have always seen the suitcases and their contents as a reflection of who the patients were before, and during their time at Willard. Because Karen went through the lengthly and difficult process of gaining access to the medical records of the suitcase owners, she was able to explore the clinical and bureaucratic side of their lives. On many occasions, we worked side by side at the museum storage facility in Rotterdam and were able to talk about what inspired us about the collection.
In many ways, I didn’t want to learn too much about the reason these folks ended up at Willard, since it was important to me to feel a connection to them through their possessions.
So it was with some trepidation that Peg Ross and I made arrangements to spend the day in the New York State Archives photographing some of the massive case files of the suitcases owners. Karen spent quite a bit of time getting Peg and me access to this otherwise closed collection, and I want to thank her so much for her efforts. It was a remarkable day, and so nice to be working close to Karen again.
I am still not sure what I will do with these photos, but I do know that they’ll eventually be a part of whatever happens with my work on the suitcases.
As I was profusely thanking Karen for all that she has contributed to my work on the collection, she remarked on something that really resonated with me. I’ll paraphrase here, but she said something to the effect that the most important things she has done in her life have been in collaboration with others. I feel that so deeply. Without Craig Williams, I would never had been able to begin the project. Without Peggy Ross I would never have photographed the entire collection, and without Karen I wouldn’t have anywhere near the insight as to what life as a patient at Willard would have been like. It is so fulfilling to be part of a team of such creative, smart, and great people, and I am so grateful to each for their help and support.
I am attempting to make a push to upload as many new cases as I can over the next few months.
George C’s case is really blue! It was empty save for a label. You can see the other photos at the willardsuitcases.com site. I am uploading the cases chronologically, and this is the beginning of a run of empty cases. I ran the second kickstarted appeal specifically to document the entire collection, and even the empty ones are important to me. (By the way, thanks to Peggy Ross for convincing me how important it was to photograph every case. I wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without her help and support.)
One case stands out in this sequence though, especially as it was anything but empty. Charles F’s possessions were amazing. It will take me days to go through it all, but I hope to have it up by the end of next week. Above is his certificate of naturalization. On the left you can see the list of clothing that came with him to Willard. More soon.
Thanks for following.
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.
We have been learning quite a bit about Margaret’s life before she came to Willard. She worked at Herman M. Biggs Memorial Hospital in Ithaca as a nurse, and at some point had some sort of surgery. There were a large number of get well cards in the boxes we worked on yesterday, many of which had lovely personal notes on the inside. It was clear that she was very well liked by her friends and co-workers.
As I have mentioned before, Margaret came to Willard with almost everything she had accumulated up to that point in her life. Yesterday we came across her 1939 and 1940 1040A forms and quite a few photographs. Inside of a photo envelope labeled “Easter Greetings” was a picture of the car that I mentioned in this post.
In the same envelope was a photograph of the hospital in Ithaca where she once worked. / Peggy Ross was especially helpful yesterday, and I wanted to thank her again for all her hard work on the project. Her organizational skills are only outweighed by her cheerful spirit, which when shooting in a darkish and chilly storage facility is very much welcomed.
There has been quite a bit of attention to the project lately and with many new folks coming to this site, I wanted to remind everyone that I am continually uploading earlier shoots to the willardsuitcases.com site. Check it out if you haven’t been there lately, and thanks for following.
This photograph is from the last shoot of 2014. LaVerne’s case held an amazing collection of postcards from Europe and some very interesting personal photographs. / Due to scheduling issues, Peg and I and won’t be able to get back to the project until later this month, but we are on the home stretch with the suitcases. I would estimate that we have photographed at least 350 of the roughly 400 cases and it feels great. The next phase (along with continuing to edit and upload to the site) will be to start talking to publishers and galleries.
Some very good news about coverage of the work. In mid December I started to see an up tic in traffic on the web, and I have been receiving lots of interest and great feedback. Just this morning abcnews.com ran a selection of the images. It is featured quite high on their main page and here is the direct link. Thanks so much to Kate at ABC News for her interest.
And a very interesting site in Brazil just ran a long article on the project. The InstitutoMoreiraSalles (IMS) runs an online magazine called ZUM and they did a great job putting the piece together. Here is the link. If any of you read Portuguese, let me know how it sounds.
I was back in Rotterdam at the storage facility shooting suitcases this past Friday. The last time I was there, Peggy and I were only able to get part way through Joseph A’s possessions, and I was really eager to finish up. I posted about that day here. Most of what was in his two large trunks was clothing, and as I have said before, setting up this sort of shot is difficult for me.
Thank goodness for Peg. I have mentioned before just how important she is to the project. I probably would have never done the second Kickstarter without her, or for that matter, even thought about shooting all 400 of the suitcases. Friday was a good case in point. Every single article of clothing in Joseph’s collection had been assigned a catalogue number by the museum. This meant taking the objects out of their archival boxes, keeping track of the small pieces of paper on which those numbers were written, hiding the numbers in the folds of the clothes so they weren’t visible in the photographs, setting up the shot, taking the photographs, rematching all the numbers with the articles, and finally putting them back into their designated storage boxes. We worked for about four hours on this one trunk; had I been alone it would have taken days.
And in addition to all of this detail work, she helps to organize the shots, and sees things that I would otherwise miss. When we were putting Joseph’s clothes away, she pointed out that his initials had been embroidered onto the collar of his pajamas, and it makes for a lovely picture.
So a huge thank you to Peg for her organizational skills, hard work, and dedication to the project. I couldn’t do this without her.
Peg and I had a very productive day yesterday. We made it through an entire storage box of suitcases; we must have shot at least 14. Most were close to being empty. This safety pin was (barely) holding one of the ribbons that secures items on the bottom of the case. It is a lovely shade of green. This case belonged to Mary E. B.
I am sitting in terminal 3 at Heathrow waiting to be picked up by John Wilson. Nice to be back in England.
The Kickstarter campaign ends next Wednesday. I want to thank all of you who have supported the project so far.
It is now time for me to put out a direct appeal to those of you who have thought about backing the project but have been waiting to decide if it was something you would care to do. I could really use your help.
The way Kickstarter works is that I set a goal, and if that goal is not reached, none of the funds will come through. I felt strongly that I did not want to undervalue the project, and that if I achieved my goal, I would be able to finish shooting all the cases. The money raised helps me cover my costs of travel, pays me for my time, and enables me to pay Peggy Ross for her invaluable help. The funds also allow me to make and distribute prints to show to potential venues for exhibits, and begin to reach out to organizations that might want me to talk about the suitcases to a wider audience. I can’t begin to tell you how weird it feels to me to directly ask for financial support, but I am convinced that this is the most important project I have worked on in my life as a photographer, and I think Kickstarter is a great venue for people to become involved in the creation of something so compelling. So, here’s the link. And thanks so much.
William H was admitted to Willard on 28 June, 1926.
I often talk about the unique nature of the suitcase collection, and at times refer to the truly incredible job the New York State Museum did in preserving the cases and their contents.
The above photo is a great example of the museum’s work. The only items in Benjamin’s case were the original label, a toothpick, and a tiny scrap of paper. When we opened this case, the label was in one archival bag, and the toothpick and paper scrap were in another. This may be something only museum curators and conservators can truly appreciate, but we are all beneficiaries of the care and concern shown to these materials.
I also often mention the major contribution Peggy Ross makes to this project, but today she really did something huge. Over the last few months she has been working on a database of everything we have shot and what is left to do. She made this list while I was shooting today, and just seeing it made me feel that not only have we made real progress, but now being able to complete a documentation of the entire collection seems within reach. We now know exactly what remains to be shot and, that makes me feel really good.
It was great to see my friend Connie Houde who was working at the storage facility today. She is on staff at the museum and is also a really interesting photographer. She’s been working on updating her website and you should check it out here.
Thanks for following. Cheers, Jon
I have started shooting two days a week at the museum in an attempt to get through all 400 cases. I have a long way to go. Last week Peg was not able to help out and I was only able to get through 4 empty cases in a day.. She was with me this Wednesday and Thursday and we really wailed. We were able to get through several empty cases and then started on Charles F’s collection; 2 small cases and a huge trunk with 4 archival boxes filled with his possessions. He was such an interesting fellow and had saved very interesting items. He was born in Russia in 1861, became a US citizen in 1896 and was admitted to Willard in 1946. He died there and is buried in Ithaca.
I have slowly been uploading more cases to the gallery on willardsuitcases.com. Check it out by clicking on “The Cases” in the tabs section at the top of the page.