Payne visited seventy shuttered mental hospitals in thirty states between 2002 and 2008, photographing both their palatial exteriors and their crumbling interiors. The facades are ornate and enormous—the largest facilities could house more than 10,000 patients—while the dusty rooms often look as though their occupants had just left, their labeled toothbrushes still hanging in neat rows. Many of these institutions have since been demolished, so Payne’s images serve as their final appearance in the historical record.
Asylum reminds us of the pre-pharmaceutical era of psychiatric treatment, when the mentally ill were shunted out of public view in vast, village-like facilities, complete with movie theaters, hairdressing salons, bowling alleys and vegetable gardens. But although many of the buildings are the worse for wear, they seem less like prisons than mansions, as if architectural rigor could soothe a troubled mind. There is a palpable tension between the orderly spaces and the suffering and confusion of the patients who once lived in them, a melancholy that builds to tragedy as one contemplates images of empty coffins and pre-numbered grave markers and shelf after shelf of unclaimed cremains.
Payne’s photographs evoke their absent tenants by the traces they left behind, be it their clothes or medical records or the erosion caused by the passage of thousands of unknown hands and feet. Yet they also invoke their caregivers and family and a society which knew of no other way to care for the mad then building them vast palaces in which to wile away their last years on earth.