For the record, all of these photos are from the Argus archives. I have no idea if the place still stands, though I reckon it must, since I haven't heard about it being torn down. Not too long ago, I heard a story on the radio about some kids getting arrested for breaking into the asylum. After the story aired, several of my friends called to ask if it was me.
I have no idea what the asylum used to be. It stands at the end of a big lot across from the VA hospital, and it's definitely the kind of place you'd break into on Halloween night, just to prove to your friends that you aren't frightened. I've heard people say it was a tuberculosis clinic, or an insane asylum, or a primitive rehab facility. It would not be hard to find out what it was, and I'm sure someone will post the answer in the comments, but that's missing the point.
In college I went through a funeral procession of used cameras. I'd buy one, shoot it till it broke, and buy another. But when you're shooting film, with no way to preview an image, you have to shoot a test roll anytime you buy a “new” camera. The asylum became a sort of proving ground for these new recruits because it stood in good open light, its size made lens distortions obvious, and its bricks made it easy to test for sharpness.
Documentary photography requires you to respond emotionally to what you see. This is different from mainstream 'photojournalism,' in that the latter is often predicated by an assignment. You're told what to shoot, and you do it with preconceptions of what you'll find. I had no expectations of the asylum, precisely because I knew nothing about it.
Well, almost nothing. I knew it was scary as hell.
But more than the emotional response, documentary photography requires the honest communication of that response. A news photographer should remain completely unattached; a documentary photographer should be always be just about to cry. Or, in the case of the asylum, just about to scream and run away.
Photographers will appreciate this: I broke three cameras taking pictures of the asylum, most notably a Ziess-Ikon Contaflex. The other two were lowly Ricoh XR-1s, old models with a Pentax K-mount that were cheap even before the bottom fell out of used film gear. All three cameras suffered the same fate: A stuck shutter. So that old cliché that photographers hear — “Don't take my picture, you'll break your camera” — seems, in this case, to be true.
At the time, those broken cameras were a real bummer. But looking back through my negatives, the photos I made with half-stuck shutters, obscuring the scene with a black void, ended up being the most honest pictures I took.
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Other dispatches from the Asheville Argus:
The Lay of the Land
Merry Christmas from the Asheville Argus
Birds, Part II
Birds, Part I
Eyes on the Street
The Public Space
Collected Street Portraits
The Day it All Started
Fog on the Top Deck
Introducing the Asheville Argus