The largest psychiatric hospital in the world once operated in a small, nondescript southern town. From its founding in the early nineteenth century, it steadily grew as the decades passed and as the treatments it offered evolved from the primitive to the merely misguided. Ultimately, the idea of keeping the mentally ill locked away en masse became unsavory, and across the country these hospitals began to close. Vandalia (a name changed to provide a fig leaf of anonymity) was no different; today its massive campus sits mostly empty, save for a few buildings still used by the department of corrections.
Last summer’s road trip brought me here to see what I could find. I rolled into town in the late afternoon, with enough time to drive around the hospital and do some scouting. The next morning, up before the sun, I found an inconspicuous spot to leave the car and made my way toward the campus. This corner of the town had once seemingly been housing for doctors or administrators. Now, like the hospital itself, these homes sat unused.
The asylum buildings themselves were arrayed along a few tree lined avenues. The grounds themselves are public, so you can freely walk around and photograph the exteriors. There is a steady security presence, and walking around with a camera and gear can draw attention. I shot these photos later in the day on the way out, figuring I can afford the extra scrutiny when I’m already leaving.
Luckily, there were enough nooks and crannies that allowed for an unobserved way in. There was a ton of real estate to cover, and, though few artifacts were left behind, the buildings themselves were a great shoot. As the temperature rose in the humid morning hours, some rooms seemed to sizzle or glow.
But often the light came in obliquely, filtering through doors, coming from around a corner, or seeping in like the mala aria of antiquity.
Finally, there were times when you had to provide the light.