I just got word that the governor of New York State has signed Senate Bill S840A. Here is the summary of the bill; “(Senate Bill S840A ) relates to patients interred at state mental health hospital cemeteries; directs the release of the name, birthdate and date of death of certain patients 50 years after the date of death”. I am not totally clear about what “certain patients” means, and to whom this information may be released, but this is certainly good news. Here is a link to two earlier posts I did about the cemetery and the whole issue of names. Click on Coleen Spellecy’s and Lin Stuhler’s links to read about the two people who did the most to get this bill through the legislature. And thanks to Joe Robach for being persistent in getting the bill passed and signed into law.
The issue of not being allowed to name the owners of the suitcases has always bothered me. I have been expressly told by both the New York State Museum and the New York Office of Mental Health that due to state law, I am forbidden to use the surnames of the patients when I publish the photographs, even though some of those names have already been mentioned in local newspapers and in other sources. I feel that not using surnames continues to dehumanize the folks who were already stigmatized just by being patients at Willard. Due to this new law, it might be possible, in some instances, to begin using full names. All in all, this is a pretty exciting development.
Thanks for following and check out the suitcases site to see the latest.
Even though I am in South Carolina taking a short break, I’m still trying to get quite a bit of editing done on the suitcases project. Nora M’s cases are pretty amazing.
The above shot is a great example of how the museum conserved and catalogued each item in the collection. In the photo below you can see how Peg and I unwrapped and set up Nora’s cutlery.
In the past few days I have been able to upload several more cases to willardsuitcases.com, so please go check them out. On the main page, click on “The Cases” at the top of the page. There are quite a few shots on Nora’s page, so be sure to click “view: all” underneath the “Add To Cart” button.
Have a great week everyone and thanks for following.
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.
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.
It has been too long since I have posted a suitcase here. I have been very busy shooting and have also been feeling a bit rushed about mailing out the rewards for the kickstarter backers. It has been a long and interesting process, and helps me feel the connection that I have with all of you who have supported the project.
This suitcase belonged to Thelma R.
She had a very interesting collection of items.
Many of them were of a religious nature.
I especially like to come across miniature dogs and Thelma had three. I really like the way these Scotties looked up at me while I was working.
There is usually one anomalous item in each case and in this one it was this small figurine. It didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of her things.
One of the envelopes was full of photographic negatives. There were no prints but most of the shots were of friends and I presume, family.
This is one of several small banks that I have seen. I like the lock painted on the front; the real access to the money was from the bottom.
I wasn’t sure what was contained in these envelopes as they were all sealed, but the word curl makes it a bit obvious. I held one up to my lights and it looked and felt like a lock of hair. Thelma’s surname was not Sullivan, but that name appeared in most of the papers and books in her suitcase.
This is the only recording that I have found in a suitcase. I really like the design of the label, and the record seemed in perfect condition.
I have obscured the last several letters of her name here. This piece of paper was in one of her notebooks, and tells a bit of a story about her origins.
The post mark on this card looks to be 1943 or 1945. One of the labels in the case says that she came to Willard on 9 July, 1946, so she would have been in her early 20s when she received this.
Many of the cases have day books or diaries, but in every instance but one, they all have only a few entries. On the first day of the new year Thelma found a penny in Camillus and wrote about it.
Her next comment came almost 3 weeks later, and only one more entry followed this one.
Thanks again to Craig Williams and the New York State Museum for granting me access to the suitcases, and thank you all for following this project.
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 was able to photograph two cases at the museum on Wednesday. It was a good day to go over, as I was able to see Karen Miller who was there looking at some of the materials.
Charles’ case was mostly empty, but was in quite good condition. It appears that his time at Willard began in the 1930s.
In addition to the case was an archival box with his name that had some heft to it.
Inside was this instrument, which I believe is called a zither. (Any help in identifying it is welcome.)
I love the decal with the notes. Really beautiful.
I don’t believe this paddle has anything to do with the instrument. It is clearly hand carved and though I can’t read the writing on the left side, one phrase on the right is pretty clear.
Inside the box were also two sheets of paper used to keep score for “Rumie pinochle”.
There was also a publication called “Glidden Brighter Home Magazine”.
I was in Albany last Monday to shoot some more of the Willard suitcases. It was the day Peter Carroll was filming me for the Kickstarter video, so it was a bit different of an experience. I was comfortable when Peter was shooting me work, but as soon as he started interviewing me, I lost the plot. Sometimes it is hard to put into words what I am feeling about this project. The photos seem to speak for themselves and I have always expressed myself best through pictures and not words. Anyway, if you have seen the video here, you will understand what an amazing editor he is. He took my jumbled thoughts and made sense of them. Kickstarter emphasizes how important a short video is to getting funded, and I think it has really made a difference.
So here is Fred Butters’ case. It is a beautiful design, and I especially love how the leather helps to define it. The handle is also in really nice shape.
There wasn’t a lot in it when it was opened, but what was there was really interesting.
It is so touching to see what he brought with him to Willard.
I especially like the metal container of talc and the design of the Polident can.
The blank postcards say alot too. One element of this project I need to have answered is whether or not the owners had access to the suitcases while they were at Willard. If they didn’t, what would explain the envelope with the stamp on it that wasn’t ever mailed? I’ll ask Craig; he will know.
The toothbrush container is glass.
Here is the talc container, and below a letter. I really need to find out if he brought it with him or received it while living at Willard.
So, the project is now posted at Kickstarter. I am really hoping I reach my goal so I can continue to do this work. If you know anyone who might be interested, please feel free to forward it along. Thanks to everyone who has already donated, and to all who have looked at the photos.
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.