An Abandoned Hospital and its Abandoned Inhabitants

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What is it that's so uncanny and strange about an abandoned hospital? Perhaps it's the emptiness of an immense place, or the wrongness of silence in a building that's supposed to be bustling with activity at all times -- or the nagging sense that we've somehow failed; it's a place meant to care for us when we're in need, which we could not ourselves care for. Of course, not all hospitals care for their patients the way they should be cared for -- take for instance the Oregon psychiatric hospital which once served as the shooting location for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It had always been home to abandoned people -- people so alone they weren't even claimed after death. In 1913, the hospital began to cremate these unclaimed patients and store their ashes in copper cannisters on pine shelves in a small room.

Nearly one hundred years later, the hospital is partially abandoned, partially converted to a facility that houses violent criminals. But the room where the ashes were stored -- called the Library of Dust in photographer David Maisel's new photo essay of the same name -- is still there. Maisel had learned that the copper cannisters had for years been reacting chemically with the human ashes stored inside them, creating a kind of beautiful hybrid of man and metal -- and he set out to photograph them -- hundreds in all -- in a small photo studio he set up inside the hospital.

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Maisel's book of photographs comes out later this month through Chronicle Books. Here are a few of his strangely moving images, and brief excerpts from an unusually poetic accompanying essay by Geoff Manaugh.
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Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse "“ reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

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After all, these ash-filled urns were photographed only because they remain unclaimed; they've been excluded from family plots and narratives. A viewer of these images might even be seeing the fate of an unknown relative, eclipsed, denied "“ treated like so much dust, eventually vanishing into the shells that held them.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals "“ anonymous. Do we see in Maisel's images then "“ as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet "“ the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?

It is not a library at all "“ but a room full of souls no one wanted.

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All photos by David Maisel. Via BLDGBLOG.

August 19, 2008 - 3:00am
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