I finally got the chance to see the exhibit, and while I have a few quibbles, it is very exciting.
The space is situated very close to the front of the building. There are basically three components. On the left of this photograph (↑) is the Utica Crib display which deals with the idea of confinement. To the right of that is the entrance to the “attic” where the cases are located, along with my photographs and Karen Miller’s poems. And out the back is the interactive space where visitors can write about their feelings toward the exhibit and the ideas represented.
After entering the door ( top photo above) one enters the attic. (This is the core idea of the exhibit space. Gordon Chen based his design on the room where the cases were rediscovered. I think it mostly works, although I did hear several complaints about the lighting. It does seem a bit on the dark side. The wall to the right has nine 12 inch prints. I think they could have used more. There seems to be a lot of empty space, and given that the cases are displayed in three levels it would make sense to me to have used more photos in this area.
This shot (↑) shows the relationship between the photographs on the right and the actual cases on the left, which are placed behind chicken wire. The wire is a bit distracting for me. Viewed from a distance it works well, but when one gets close to the objects, it makes it difficult to read text and get a feeling for the items. I would stress that this could be a problem only for me, since I have had such an intimate relationship with the contents of the suitcases while photographing them. Others might not have any issue with this. At the far end of this shot is one of the amazing 36 inch photographs that Alex Ross printed (they used six of these). The idea of big prints has never really appealed to me in general, but I will say that they work really well in the space. Behind that wall is a series of video monitors with different people talking about mental illness, and I heard many visitors found these interviews fascinating.
This view (↑) looks back toward the entrance and shows how the cases are displayed. The hanging clipboards are Karen’s “then and now” diagnosis of the patients. Several people told me that this was an extremely effective way to connect with the owners of the suitcases. It is a simple concept that describes how the doctors at the time of admittance made a diagnosis, and how those same symptoms might be treated today.
Here is another one of Alex’s 36 inch prints, with cases on the right.
This view is toward the exit, and leads into the interactive space.
And this is the exit door looking back into the attic.
Visitors are encouraged to sit at tables and use small cards to answer questions like the one above. Most of the answers are heartfelt and interesting, although some trolling is present. What is especially touching to me is seeing comments in the handwriting of children. I visited on two separate occasions, and I saw parents with their kids viewing the photographs and objects, and reading Karen’s poems. This is an exhibit that is clearly provocative, although not in the negative sense at all. What it does, and was clearly intended to do, is open up dialogue about mental health issues.
Here’s another one of the questions. The card on the right reads “My stuff toy Johnson”.
The Exploratorium folks thought it would be a good idea to print up some cards with my photos on the front and a snippet of one of Karen’s poems on the back. These are beautiful and so far seem to be selling well. I bought several sets and am excited to have them.
I have a few comments about the whole experience and am not really sure where to start. But here goes.
The new Exploratorium is simply amazing. It is a beautiful space with so much to see. Keeping in mind their original charter as a hands-on learning environment, it is completely successful. And the fact that they are now branching out into the social sciences and presenting more artistically orientated concepts is great. Not only great, but brave and daring as well. My first visit was on an extremely busy Sunday and the place was jammed. As I lingered in the “Normal” space, I noticed some visitors were clearly not expecting to see something like it, and there were a few who were obviously put off by the whole idea. I even heard one young kid use the word “awful” twice in one sentence. And that is why I use the words brave and daring. They are now doing everything a public museum should be doing by exposing visitors to concepts that are not always comfortable. And I am honored to have been asked to play a small role in that process.
My second visit on Tuesday helped me to be objective about my involvement in the project. I was able to talk to quite a few people and get some very positive feedback. Early on, I accepted my role as an adjunct player in ” The Changing Face….”. It was difficult at times as most of the decision making was out of my hands. And there are still some elements of it that are at odds with my initial concept of what to do with the photographs. But as I move forward, I will be able to show the work at venues where I have much more control. That said though, I am happy and excited by what the Exploratorium has done. The photographs are being seen by a diverse audience and that is always a good thing.
So, big thanks to Pam Winfrey, Stephanie Bailey, Julie Nunn, and Stacy Martin who have all supported my involvement. Please go see the new building and the exhibit, and I would really appreciate any feedback.
In March I was contacted by Jain Lemos from the ASPP.
She had seen the Salon piece on the suitcases just as she was putting the finishing touches on the latest issue of their quarterly magazine. Jain knew that it would be very last minute, but we managed to select images and I wrote 400 words about the project. I loved her idea of featuring the preservation of the suitcases and contents, especially how the New York State Museum spent so much time and care on the cataloging and conservation aspect. Yesterday I received a few copies directly from the printer and the story looks great. They used a cropped shot of the glycerine bottle on the contents page, and as you can see above, eight shots were used in the spread. The magazine is available only to members, but the story should be up online in a month or so. It is a really great organization and not just for photographers; many members are picture editors and others who work directly with images in other ways. If you work with images in any way, it might be a good idea to check them out.
Here’s a bunch of random stuff.
On our last day in New Orleans we took the trolley out to the Garden District. I was very happy to walk under The Pearl neon sign and see that it was turned on this time.
I have always liked wandering around graveyards and the Lafayette Cemetery was near to the trolley.
There is a great bookstore nearby and I was finally able to find a copy of Maira Kalman’s “And The Pursuit of Happiness”. I have been looking for a while now, and was so happy to find it. She sent me the nicest email about the Willard Suitcases and I was eager to see this book, as I really like her work. I especially like that she mentions the numbered graves at Gettysburg since they are so much like the ones at the Willard cemetery.
We flew back very late into BWI and this is what I saw out the window as we flew over DC.
I had a great shoot on Wednesday with another amazing writer. Poets & Writers asked me to photograph Neil Gaiman and he is the nicest guy. I can not post any shots until the story runs sometime this summer, but I will as soon as I can.
And finally, we drive Peter to DC tomorrow to help him find a place to live and get him settled. The usual melancholy has been creeping in and so I have been listening to a lot of Percy Grainger. I have always been so taken with his music. I seem to recall as a boy listening to a CBC program with my dad that used this piece as a theme. Here’s another that I especially like. The thing for me about Grainger is that there is an element of sadness in his music in spite of the light-hearted feeling of the tunes. He was a pretty out there fellow and the one quote of his that I think of often is him talking about his work. When speaking of his use of harmony, he said “My efforts even in those young days, were to wrench the listener’s heart with my chords. It is the contrast between the sweet and the harsh…that is heart-rending…And the worth of my music will never be guessed, or its value to mankind felt, until the approach to my music is consciously undertaken as a ‘pilgrimage to sorrows.’”
We are heading North today after an amazing, recuperative stay in South Carolina. Spring has arrived in full force; trees are budding out and the weather has been beautiful. / I got a ton of work done on the suitcase project while here. The American Society of Picture Professionals is featuring the project in a story in their next publication. They are the first to have focused on the preservation aspect of the materials since many of their members are curators. I am so happy to get this side of the story out. And I have sent six images to the Exploratorium that they will be using to produce postcards to sell in the museum store. Finally, today I got a nice email from Yvonne Boots-Faubert who looked at some of the fabric/sewing based contents of the cases and wrote a nice post on her blog. Check it out. I am so happy when people look at the photographs and are stimulated enough to get creative and apply it to their own interests. Thanks, as usual, to all of you who are following this site.
I had a very nice time on Talk of the Nation today. Ari Shapiro was great and it was fun to talk about the suitcases. My heart was beating a bit as I was being introduced, but once we got rolling it went really well. Here is a link to the audio. The studio was interesting. NPR no longer has a broadcast facility in Charleston (I’m down here for a bit of a late winter break.) so they sent me to an independent recording studio that does this sort of live feed on a regular basis. You can see by the picture that it was a comfy little space. / Pardon the repetition for regular visitors to this site, but if you are new here and just want to see the suitcase posts, here you go. Some other links are here, here, and here. Comments are always welcome. Thanks for all your support and interest, and big thanks to Ari and A.D. at TOTN.
Ari Shapiro, who is guest-hosting NPRs Talk of the Nation saw the Slate piece on the suitcases and thought it might be a good idea to have me on the show. So, this coming Monday at 3.40 pm Eastern time I will be interviewed, and there will probably be some time for phone calls. I am so pleased that the project is getting so much positive attention. / Welcome to all the recent guests to this site. I would also like to add a note to all of you who have taken the time to comment here, or send me email. I am really touched by the stories of your own connection to the asylums and to mental illness. I always attempt to respond to you all, but lately I have really been inundated with mail due to the recent attention the cases have received. Over the next few weeks, I will be cutting back on my other responsibilities to focus primarily on this project. So if you haven’t heard back from me yet, I’ll hope to be in touch soon.
Slate Magazine ran a really nice piece on the Willard Suitcase project. Here’s the link. Big thanks to David Rosenberg for his interest and doing a great job choosing and laying out the photos. / When I was recently in San Francisco I stayed at this place. It is a great old building and the staff are loads of fun.
On Thursday Peggy came over to help me edit for the Exploratorium exhibit. We had a very productive day and nailed down our final choices. I started printing yesterday morning and have worked pretty steadily until a few minutes ago. I still have some that I will probably reprint tomorrow, but for all intents and purposes I am done for now. All my prints are 12 inches wide, and my great friend Alex Ross has been printing the seven or eight 36 inch wide prints. It feels great to be so close to putting everything into a giant fedex box and sending them to San Francisco.
The Lucy Davies article about the suitcases is now online. Here is the link to the story. And here is the link to the slideshow. It is getting quite a bit of response. / Things are moving along at the Exploratorium. It is all about working with a committee, so it feels a bit different, but when done, it is going to be very interesting. / The 14 suitcases arrived safely last week in these lovely blue shipping containers and are being prepped for display. It is all quite exciting.