Photographing the Pennhust Asylum
In the little town of Spring City, Pennsylvania are the remains of a place that is considered the Shame of Pennsylvania. In the early 1900’s, a state run asylum was built to house “feeble-minded” children which was called Pennhurst. Overcrowding, neglect and abuse of the mentally and physically disabled patients at that asylum was common place and eventually the institution was shut down in the 1980’s.
I was recently able to photograph Pennhurst during a photo workshop. These buildings represent a history that is far more fascinating than their architecture, so my goal was to find the ghosts and the traces of what it must have been like to have lived there.
Finding those ghosts was not easy. The place had been picked over pretty well since it closed. It was also set up for Haunted Halloween Tours. The concept of doing this is sort of a mockery of Pennhurst’s history, however, the property is privately held and the owner can do as he wishes with it.
One simple technique I employed to find my ghosts was to photograph at a child’s height and try to see Pennhurst through the eyes of a child. Eventually the ghosts revealed themselves and I started seeing past the structures I was photographing into something a little deeper.
A ball and a window
While in this old room I noticed a bright red ball on the floor. After placing it on a window ledge, the ghost demonstrated the hopelessness of what it must have been like to gaze outside and see a world you want to inhabit but you know you never will.
A Child’s Vision at Pennhurst Asylum by Richard Lewis 2015
I was surprised to see how industrial or how much like a prison the hospital section of Pennhurst looked. I don’t know what the room on the other side of the metal framed glass wall was used for. Its lone chair with the light from the window seemed to radiate isolation. Whether that emotion relates to a patient trapped in Pennhurst or a staff member being surrounded by tortured souls is something I leave for you to interpret.
Industrial Medicine at Pennhust Asylum by Richard Lewis 2015
This ghost was a most unusual one because I think I knew who it was. A close relative recently passed away and she spent a good part of her later life using a walker to get around. It may have been her that drew me to this rusty old walker. I placed it near a bricked over window. To me this scene represents the inevitable physical ending of one’s life, usually after years declining health. The light from the side symbolizes that the end of life, while final in one sense, may also be a beginning.
The Walker by Richard Lewis 2015
A friend told me to not miss “Candy Land” which was some kind of playroom in a basement decorated with the remains of child-like graphics, some of which were quite strange. The room was totally dark and I found my ghost by putting a light on the floor and moving a small ball into the scene. Now a bizarre ruin, one wonders if Candy Land was a place of refuge or a place of terror for the children who used it.
Candy Land at Pennhurst Asylum by Richard Lewis 2015
Light streaming in from the windows made for an unusual ghost. To me, it represents that beauty and hope can be found in every situation. In the depths of the deepest despair, there is always something good to hold on to.
The Light From Above by Richard Lewis 2015
Window Light at Pennhurst by Richard Lewis 2015
Pennhurst Sitting Area by Richard Lewis 2015
Pennhurst was a pretty difficult place to photograph emotionally. Usually the old and abandoned structures i point my camera at have a history worth preserving. The tragic thing about this place is that it was around long enough to have a history.
These photos came from a workshop run by Matthew Christopher one of the most inspiring photographers I know who creates amazing images in these old and abandoned places.