Library of Dust: David Maisel’s Fine Art Photos of an Abandoned Insane Asylum


There is something eerily unsettling about old hospitals, even more so when a portion of that old hospital is abandoned and once housed psychiatric patients.

In his collection entitled “Library of Dust“, fine art photographer David Maisel gives us a glimpse into the Oregon State Hospital, formally known as the Oregon State Insane Asylum.

Jack Nicholson fans will recall this as the filming location for the Academy Award-winning movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Although much of the hospital is still in use, certain wings have been closed due to deteriorating conditions, and David Maisel does a wonderful job at walking us through those wings. It’s a creepy walk, to be sure, with photographs of peeling paint, broken tiles and abandoned rooms still holding the memories of things long forgotten.


I love this kind of stuff. Old buildings have a soul and photographs like David’s breathe life into them again. The images tell you enough of the story to give you a base, leaving your mind to make up the rest, to fill in the blanks. For each of us, how we fill in those blanks say more about US than the building itself.

And while all of the images are compelling, his series entitled “Canisters,” took me back a bit. It actually had me wincing at the computer screen, for the series features copper canisters, each containing the unclaimed cremated remains of former patients who died at the hospital between the years of 1883 and the 1970s.


Now, the thing about these canisters is that they are beautiful. Copper undergoes a chemical change when exposed to certain elements. I don’t know why or how; chemistry class was many years ago and I am not Bill Nye the Science Guy.

But the chemical reactions, corrosion, really, have resulted in a kaleidoscope of color, turning plain copper canisters into things of beauty: turquoise and bright orange, trickles of white amid swirls of vivid blues. Some almost have a feel of the sea, with waves of blue cascading into one another.

But the thing that took me back the most was one of the canisters still had its label intact.

And the label reads “Baby Ma***” March 7, 1924:


The cremated remains of an infant, scooped inside a copper canister and stuck on a shelf for almost 90 years. No one to claim it. No family to mourn its death. No one to remember. Just a corroded copper canister sitting on a dusty shelf, lost to the cobwebs of time.

And then I realized, somebody DID remember. Somebody DID see value in that little life. And that same person took out his camera and he photographed it… so that all of us could remember, too.

Image credits: Photographs by David Maisel

  • 3ric15

    Is it just me or is this article kind of cheesy in a way?

  • harumph
  • ziplock9000

    There are a million photographers who can and do this type of photography.. Whats so special about this guy?

  • Nate Parker

    Nice one!

  • crooked

    that second photo is a joke, surely? fine art and he couldnt even adjust his tripod to get all the angles and horizon straight. wow!

  • Ken

    Special enough to get featured on my favorite photo blog. And yours sir? What makes your pictures special?

  • peaceetc

    I’d say it’s more about the photographer wanting to document the crumbling hospital to preserve what’s left of it. He went out there and did it, which is more than a lot of people would do.

    I’ve been past that hospital any number of times in my life, but I’ve never had the opportunity to go inside. I’m glad the photographer was able to show us some of what’s in there.

  • KH

    This is a very popular hobby. And photographing these exact canisters has already been done before. Most notably by photographer Christopher Payne’s in his book Asylum featured on pages 194 and 195.

    I dig the photos regardless though.

  • ziplock9000

    Thats not even a logical answer.

  • 773metric

    I really hate the idea that you have to be an expert at something in order to criticise anyone. It’s nonsense. The fact that I’m unable to make award-winning soufflĂ© shouldn’t stop me from telling someone else that their soufflĂ© is a bit too dry, for instance.

    The photos in this post aren’t very interesting. The corridor shot is badly aligned. Whether or not I take amazing corridor shots shouldn’t prevent me from noticing that this corridor shot is badly aligned.

  • seedubbb

    But a lot of people are doing it, and much better examples could be shown.

    This is a particularly bland example, and interesting only for the Cuckoo’s Nest fact. The rest of his portfolio is impressive, but the rest from this particular set aren’t much better than the 2 internals shown here. In fact, they all have the same angled tilt. Maybe this was a creative choice? Or just a defective tripod.

  • ziplock9000

    I’m a professional photographer, so yes I do :)
    And this article is about his shots of an Asylum, not x-ray, aerial or any other kind of photography. Please keep on track

  • cunguez

    Your last comment was what so special about this guy. Rhetorical question answered. As far as your own work…put up or shut up.

  • cunguez

    I completely agree that one needn’t be an expert to have an opinion. But there are opinions and then there are assertions, and those who present the latter (particularly when they are as condescendingly douchy as this one) shouldn’t be surprised when they are met with a response that calls into question the merits of upon which they are making said assertion.