Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ward 81 by Mary Ellen Mark

The Oregon State Hospital is getting a lot of attention due to recent reports of a plan to demolish and build a new facility. The hospital made famous by the Milos Foreman adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is also the subject of two recent photobooks as well -- Ward 81 by Mary Ellen Mark and Library of Dust by David Maisel.

Recently the publisher Damiani released a new edition of Mark's 1979 book Ward 81. Introduced to the hospital in 1974 by the film director Milos Foreman who invited Mark to photograph on the set of Cuckoo's Nest, she continued to photograph the women's ward #81 as her first self-assigned project. As Mark relates, the writer Karen Jacobs and she slept in locked cells in a deserted ward next to #81 for six weeks. The resulting 86 photographs describe the daily routines and general malaise of the inmates.

Earlier this year I found a copy of the original Simon and Schuster hardcover of Ward 81 in very fine condition and on a bit of an impulse I bought it for $100.00. In comparison to this new edition there are only a few noticeable differences. First, the trim size is slightly larger with the newer version -- oddly by only about 1/2 an inch on both dimensions. The sequence of photographs is the same although two images that appear at a smaller size in the original appear larger here. There is also a noticeable difference in the handling of the typography. This version is much cleaner with fewer "orphans" at the line breaks.

The reproductions of the newer are far more open and render much more detail than the original, also resulting in a huge contrast difference between the two. Normally I would enjoy such an improvement but the emotional tone between the two seems remarkably different. At the risk of cliche, the harder contrast of the original gives a stronger sense of anxiety -- the newer version seems a bit gray and dull comparatively.

At the end of the sequence in this new version, Mark has added ten previously unpublished images that were mounted to cards and used as reference by her printed Richard Gordon. In my opinion, with the exception of two or three of the images, nothing new is added by their presence as most seem to be variants of images that appeared in the original sequence.

After spending some time with these two versions I have come to feel that Ward 81 is a bit thin on the whole. The photographs become repetitive and many of the portraits are less than compelling because of their inability to lend more than a superficial view of mental illness. Grimacing faces and moments of depressed solitude are expected and already ingrained in our preconceptions about mental illness - it is only when some of the comaraderie between the women emerges in a few pictures that we start to enter new and unexpected territory.

David Maisel's Library of Dust to come soon...