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A haunting memorial in 'Library of Dust'

Photographer David Maisel became fascinated by canisters of cremated remains at the Oregon State Hospital. They spoke to him of secrets, transformation and loss.

January 04, 2009|Leah Ollman

The first photograph in David Maisel's new book presents a view into a storeroom that clearly doesn't get a lot of foot traffic. An old wooden desk with no chair is parked in the corner. Bits of debris have gathered on the stained linoleum floor. The walls are what give this room, and Maisel's book, its name: "Library of Dust."

Shelves packed with corroded copper cans stretch from floor to ceiling, like the backroom of a post-apocalyptic grocery store. The room is actually a warehouse of sorts. It's part of an abandoned ward at the Oregon State Hospital, and the canisters contain the unclaimed cremated remains of former psychiatric patients.

The final image in Maisel's book, released in October by Chronicle Books, shows the same archive two years later, given higher priority. The new shelves hold orderly rows of clean black boxes, each with a numbered metal tag.

In the pages between the 2005 and 2007 photographs, words and images trace the artist's fascination with secrets, transformation and loss, his confrontation with the sublime and his unexpected political advocacy.

Maisel, 47, lives in Mill Valley and maintains a studio in neighboring Sausalito. By phone recently, he confessed to a predilection for "things that aren't intended to be seen." For the past 20 years, that has meant aerial views of copper and coal mines, clear-cut forests, the ecological disaster that was once Owens Lake, the mutating expanse of Los Angeles and the shifting chemistry of the Great Salt Lake.

With their emphasis on structure, texture and tonality, his photographs (color and black-and-white) verge on abstraction, while mapping the impact of time and human action on the landscape.

When Maisel heard about the canisters of remains in the Salem, Ore., institution, he knew immediately that he wanted to photograph them. "I was very interested in the notion that they were previously hidden away. Even without seeing them, their story was so charged. These were individuals who had been, for all intents and purposes, abandoned by their families, written out of their families' own histories."

Before Maisel was born, his grandfather had undergone electroshock therapy to treat severe depression, but the photographer didn't learn of it until he was an adult. "So I glimpsed the way these kind of histories disappear, not through any malicious intent but because we want to forget."

The 3,500 canisters are what's left of men and women who came to the hospital -- called the Oregon State Insane Asylum when it opened in 1883 -- and never left. Judging from early photographs, Maisel says, the place was an asylum in the best sense of the word, a safe haven, with the comfortable layout of a college campus.

Over the decades, attitudes toward treating mental illness changed and the facility changed with them. Airy open wards were chopped up into small separate spaces. In 1975, the institution served as the set for the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and the following year, as the backdrop of Mary Ellen Mark's wrenching photographic series of women in a maximum security psychiatric ward.

The hospital began cremating the unclaimed bodies of deceased patients in 1913, when its burial grounds were displaced. The practice continued until 1971, with the "cremains," as the institution calls them, being placed in copper canisters and labeled using a succession of impermanent methods. They sat in a basement, then were moved to an underground vault, which flooded continuously.

In 2000, the vessels were moved back aboveground, to a storeroom near the old crematory. Maisel made six visits to the facility, photographing its trauma-steeped spaces, but mostly the canisters, positioning them individually against black cloth, in a manner midway between still life and studio portrait.

Each urn wears its own distinctive pattern of wear and decay. Seepage from within or moisture from outside have transformed the copper into an oscillating palette of mineral tones -- malachite, jade, turquoise. A white crystalline crust branches across one can's rim like coral or a salt deposit. An aqua scar draws down the seam of another. What looks like violent decay is also generative change; each canister is a formal, ethical and mineralogical Rorshach.

"The images are haunting and beautiful in a way that underscores how photography works as a reminder of the passage of time, as a witness to history," says Michael Roth, who was president of the California College of the Arts when Maisel attended graduate school there and now heads Wesleyan University. A scholar of psychoanalysis and the construction of history, Roth contributed one of the essays in "Library of Dust."

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