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At the end of the sequence in this new version, Mark has added ten previously unpublished images that were mounted to cards and used as reference by her printed Richard Gordon.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...


Anonymous said...

recommend two photo books about mental illness -

one is Magnum Photographer Mr Chien-Chi, Chang - Long Fa Tong, the chain

another is Magnum Photograper Mr Lu Nan (Li Xiao Ming) - China Mental Peoples

It very difficult to find the Lu Nan (Li Xiao Ming)'s books.
His three photo books only issued
on China, Taiwan. In China, one is "four season- Tibet Peoples",
anothr is China Mental Peoples, his another name in Taiwan called
Li Xiao Ming, who was issued the photo book "on th road, China's Catholicism".

Anonymous said...

Roland Schneider's Zwischenzeit(Der Alltag) is probably the best book on mental hospitals. I know Mr. Wiskets casts a wide net, but Mark adds nothing to the discussion and should not but mentioned on this fine blog. She lowers the conversation level.

Anonymous said...

Double E,

So how do you really feel about Mark? Ha!

I looked again last night after posting and Zwischenzeit is a great book. Should have been in Parr...or maybe its good it didn't. there are copies on Amazon still for $50.00. Check the link at the end of my review.

Anonymous said...

Double e,

I understand your point, that with so much good work out there, why waste your time on the mediocre. But I think Mr Whiskets may have done some folks a service by discussing it. He mentions at the beginning that he spent $100 on the first edition of the book and by the last paragraph he explains why he finds it weak after having spent some time with it and the new edition.

Anonymous said...

Stuart: yes, Mr Whiskets is doing God's work.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Just so you know I have declared myself Jesus and this is my compound. Start stockpiling weapons while I get out my guitar.

Stan B. said...

I'm not quite sure still photography would be the medium to reveal anything "new" about mental illness. And MEM should be given her props just for the attempt back in the day.

I have never seen Roland Schneider's Zwischenzeit, so I can't comment on it. Claudio Edinger's Madness however, is one hauntingly "beautiful" set of images. That said, I have yet to see any documentation on said topic more revealing than Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies.

Anonymous said...

The best work I have seen on mental illness is Raymond Depardon's film San Clemente, which is almost contemporary (released in 1982, but shot two years earlier). Interestingly, I now find out it was co-directed by Sophie Ristelhueber whom I never had heard about until recently. It's been quite a few years since I watched it, but at the time I felt it was honest, in-depth and touching.

Anonymous said...


I strongly suggest looking at Zwischenzeit at some point. Great book.


Sophie worked the sound on that film. It is great as is many of Raymond's films. I saw it in the basement library of the Maison de Photographie in Paris about ten years ago (and also saw Sergio Larrain's Rectangulo en la Mano for the first time). The foggy exterior shots that open San Clemente are so good.

I also suggest to everyone who has not seen his film on French criminal courts "10TH DISTRICT COURT" to get a hold of a copy. What he caught is so amazing.

Anonymous said...


Titticut Follies was one of the most disturbing films I think I've ever seen. What it describes is so wrong on so many levels. Glad you mentioned it.

Unknown said...

Hi all, first time comment . .

What a wonderful blog! I read your piece on Mark's Ward 81 and just wanted to tell you about Anders Petersen's Ingen har sett allt (No one has seen it all) from 1995. Similar content and subject.

A white book, feeling light, looking light. A set of amazing images follow a text in Swedish by Goran Odbratt that takes up almost the first half of this quite thick book. I do not understand Swedish but was told this text is very beautiful. Printing is great. Petersen at his very best, perhaps my favorite book (over Cafe Lehmitz and his first book Grona Lund).

I ordered a copy of Zwischenzeit, nice tip!!