Abandoned buildings are creepy. Abandoned asylums, downright terrifying. They’re the stuff of horror movies: long, dark hallways; trap doors; surgical rooms; creaking staircases; crumbling plaster walls. All of which harbor secrets of the site’s malevolent past and how exactly the place met its demise. Something must have gone down in an abandoned mental hospital, right? You couldn’t pay me to visit one.
Some people are made of tougher stuff. Case in point: Photographer Jeremy Harris, who has been exploring abandoned asylums, hospitals, and sanitariums across New England and the East Coast for nearly a decade.
In that time, Harris has pieced together an extensive portfolio detailing each, complete with photographs and artifacts taken from the sites. The materials, which can range from patient files to personal affects left behind, shed light on an important but neglected part of American history, Harris says. Just as the buildings are historically significant—they’re notable for their massive size and structural innovations that made such huge spaces possible—so are the contents they contain. By archiving all of the buildings and their contents, he hopes to reconstruct a sense of each place and of the material conditions that shaped the lives of the people who passed through their halls.
While most ruin-porn presents a lugubriously attractive snapshot and little else, Harris’s work is hinged on his extensive research, plus on-site excavation and archival probing. "I’ve done research on the history of all the hospitals I’ve visited," including, he says, delving into the architectural practices behind the design of the buildings, the treatment of the patients interred in them, and the methods— experimental or otherwise—of hospital doctors employed there. (Harris has even found documents related to famed lobotomist Walter J. Freeman.)
In large part, Harris’s cataloguing is all that’s left of the buildings. Because despite his wishes and preservation efforts, many of the buildings have since been demolished. Still, Harris continues his pursuit. When we asked why, he told Co.Design it’s because he enjoys it. "To see a place for the first time," he says, "it’s one of my favorite things." Exploring a new site brings with it its own surprises and experiences: Harris describes an odd slew of scenarios that he found himself in, from snaking through miles of tunnels to breaking into locked building to star-gazing on hospital roofs and even camping out in patient rooms.
"It’s always very exciting," he says. "You can spend days photographing a particular building, and the light changes throughout the year, so it can be different on each visit."