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Compelling Photos Document the Contents of Abandoned Suitcases from a 125-Year-Old Psychiatric Center

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Willard Psychiatric Center began its life in 1869 as Willard Asylum for the Insane, closing down over 125 years later in 1995. Thousands of long-term patients passed through its doors, and when the center was shut down, it was discovered that hundreds of suitcases belonging to some of its earliest residents had been set aside and forgotten in one of the hospital’s attics.

Those suitcases and their contents have been preserved, catalogued and, thanks to photographer Jon Crispin and his compelling Willard Asylum Suitcases series, now they have been photographed as well.

Crispin had photographed the old Asylum many times over the past three decades, and so this extension of his documentary work seemed only natural. In March of 2011, he was given access to the preserved suitcases — which are now in the New York State Museum’s permanent collection — and began what he calls “a thorough documentation” of the contents found within.

Anna G Suitcase from Willard Asylum

The series is, in a word, absorbing. Many photo series offer a glimpse into the past, but this is far more intimate than a then-and-now composite or even historical photographs rediscovered in somebody’s attic.

These are personal belongings. Combs, mirrors, medicines and hangers are joined by letters, postcards and, yes, even some old photographs. The photos in the series document all of these things, from the most mundane to the fascinating, arranged with obvious care by Crispin so as to respect the memories of the people the belonging actually belonged to.

“My main concern throughout this project is to maintain a respect for the integrity of the resident’s lives,” he writes in the project’s statement. “And I am determined to tell their stories through my photographs.”

Here is a glimpse at a few of those stories:

Willard Suitcases / Fred B. ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Maude K ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Mary W ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Ernest P. ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Willard Suitcases / Raymond H.

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©2011 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Willard Suitcases Project / Charles L

Willard Suitcase Project / Mildred H ©2011 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Eleanor G ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Lotte J ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Anna B ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Willard Suitcases / Mary R ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

©2012 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Willard Suitcases  /  Agnes J

©2012 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Willard Suitcases  /  Agnes J

Freda B Willard Suitcase

©2012 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Willard Suitcases  /  Anna B. H.

©2012 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Willard Suitcases , Mary T

Willard Suitcases  /  Lillian L

Willard Asylum Suitcases ©2012 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Asylum Suitcases ©2012 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Willard Suitcases Projecty ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Delmar H. ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases / Delmar H. ©2013 Jon Crispin ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Willard Suitcases Project

Willard Suitcases Project

Willard Suitcases Project

Willard Suitcases /

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When we spoke with Crispin, he thought he had sent us too many photographs from the series. “Pick and choose” he said apologetically. We’ve published them all instead, and don’t regret a single one.

But as many pictures as he sent us (which was definitely not too many or even, perhaps, enough) he kept plenty more to himself. The project began in 2011 and hasn’t been completed yet. More than 400 suitcases were discovered in that attic, belonging to patients who resided at the Asylum from 1910 through 1960, and in March Crispin took to Kickstarter and raised the funds to finish his work.

If you’d like to find out more about the series, visit the Willard Asylum Suitcases website or the already-funded Kickstarter campaign where Crispin describes the work he’s doing. And afterwards, be sure to pay his own photography website a visit as well.

(via Lost At E Minor)


Image credits: Photographs by Jon Crispin and used with permission


 
  • http://raylarose.com/ Raymond Larose

    I really find this interesting – at least on a historical time capsule level – much more than the typical “abandoned asylum” urbex photos, as this is very personal and glimpses into the life of one individual at a time, packed into a simple suitcase.

  • http://www.sin3rgy-creative.com/ David Liang

    Yeah, definitely. There’s something about looking at peoples stuff and trying to read into their stories that’s so interesting.

  • http://www.ceaserphotography.com/ Sid Ceaser

    I love the content. I love old, historical, aged stuff. We are peering back into the past one persons belongings at a time.

    The presentation though, I dunno, it feels too sterile for me. Maybe it’s overlit? I want some more shadows so that the cracks and crevices show time and age.

  • Snow Shine

    Fascinating, to say the least! Wondering about most if not all of those owners probably have passed on……But just looking at their artifacts feels like they are still here.

  • poppinginandout1 .

    So touching.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    great stuff, shame about the uninspiring backdrop and overall presentation :/

  • Vicious

    I agree with everyone’s sentiments . However compelling is not the appropriate word to use. Perhaps nostalgic look into the past? Or something along those lines.

  • Annie Kiser

    I really enjoyed these photos – wish there had been more! Fun to wonder about the owners of these items…who were they and what brought then to Willard?

  • Michael D. Rubin

    Fix the URL misspelling :) “psycheatric-center”

  • Geary Wootten

    So looking at something nostalgic is not compelling to you?

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    If you are compelled when you walk past an antique store perhaps these photos would do that. If not, you likely would not even be nostalgic.

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  • Noel Kerns

    Fascinating.

  • http://lois-bryan.artistwebsites.com/ Lois Bryan

    intriguing subject matter and outstanding photographic artwork … well done

  • Guest

    According to the dictionary:

    com·pel·ling
    kəmˈpeliNG/
    adjective
    evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.
    “his eyes were strangely compelling”

  • robert

    compelling is the perfect word to use:

    com·pel·ling
    adjective
    evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.
    “his eyes were strangely compelling”

  • Heather Palmer

    In the early 2000′s, I attended a conference where they had a presentation about the Willard Suitcases. They touched on the lives of 4 individuals who had stayed there, & the horrible reasons that were given for why they were committed in the first place. It was interesting & very heart wrenching. My hats off to Crispin for pursuing this even further! God Bless You.

  • Vicious

    Hmmm you’re absolutely correct. Because everyone is like you Robert. I too have a power admiration , in an Irrisistible way. Listen, I like the photos and did not refute that fact. I simply stated perhaps better wording could be used? And again everything is a matter of perception. What’s perfect for me , mabye is not perfect for you?

  • Lunchbox

    Beautiful and eerie at the same time