Asylum and Looking In: Two Glorious Adult Picture Books

Monday, December 28, 2009

This morning I'm celebrating two extraordinary picture books.

The first, featuring photographs by the exquisite Christopher Payne and an introduction by Oliver Sacks, is called Asylum. Presenting some of the most moving images I have ever seen, this book takes us on a tour of the institutions that have served as home to this country's mentally ill. There are no people in these photographs—just a wall of toothbrushes, say, or canisters of ashes, or beleaguered ward hallways lit up by sun. Taunton State Hospital, Matteawan State Hospital, Concord State Hospital, and Springfield State Hospital are here; so is the operating room of Norristown and the coffins of Fergus Falls. Every single photograph is breathtaking; I bought the book two months ago and I still don't have the words to express my deep respect for the artistry of Payne.

The second book I'm celebrating today is Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans/Expanded Edition. We had seen the Americans exhibition at San Francisco MOMA, and I'd fallen in love with Frank's depiction of America, mid-last century, with its spewing politicians and its through-the-screen-door barber shops, its movie stars and its road trips. This compendium is graced by in-depth Sarah Greenough essays, context-proving contact sheets, and truly interesting explications of Frank's approach to maquettes and juxtaposition. Looking In was my big Christmas present this year, and it is big—so heavy, so wide that I have yet to figure out how to perch it on my lap. But it should not be/cannot be relegated to coffee table status. It demands to be studied and read.


Anonymous said...

I love photography and wish we had room for more books. I looked at the photos of Asylum online and they were fascinating.

Unknown said...

I read a fabulous review of Asylum awhile back...perhaps in National Geographic? It definitely made me want to buy the book and tour some of the places.

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