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Freda Bowker suitcase, part of the New York State Museum collection of suitcases from the Willard Asylum (Jon Crispin)

Asylum Suitcases, Found And Photographed

by Claire O'Neill
Mar 4, 2013 (Talk of the Nation)

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Photographer Jon Crispin photographs suitcases that were left behind at the Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, N.Y.

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Claire O'Neill

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Ed. Note: This article was originally published Nov. 2, 2011.

Photographer Jon Crispin has a fascination with things that are left behind. Those are his exact words. "Even as a kid I was trying to get into places I shouldn't go," he says on the phone.

In the '80s he was basically given free rein to document abandoned asylums in New York state. He has also worked closely and often with the New York State Museum, including on some Sept. 11 preservation projects.

Crispin's latest fascination is with old suitcases — discovered by the New York State Museum in an attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, N.Y. "The cases were put into storage when their owners were admitted to Willard sometime between 1910 and the 1960s," Crispin explains on a Kickstarter page, where he is raising funds to continue photographing. "And since the facility was set up to help people with chronic mental illness, these folks never left."

There are about 400 suitcases in the collection, many of them empty. The contents in the suitcases — and the suitcases themselves — have been wrapped in archival paper by the museum. Crispin's stylistic approach is to photograph the wrapping, the exterior, the interior and finally details of the contents.

"I try to make them look as beautiful as they are," he says. "And they're touching too. My goal as a photographer is to have people react." The suitcases contain letters that were never mailed, diaphanous cigarette papers, a glass bottle of glycerin left behind by a craftswoman — tiny parts of a forgotten whole.

"I am so interested in these cases," Crispin writes. "And I am totally wigged out by being able to photograph a representation of the lives of people who struggled so much to make it in a very stressful and confusing world." You can follow the suitcase documentary project on his blog, where he muses in real time with each photograph.

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