Epitaph for an Asylum
by Rusty Tagliareni
Like shooting a living person, the portrait of an abandoned building cannot be rightly taken without first understanding it. What is it? What was its purpose? What brought it to its present state?
Since the advent of the Internet, background research has become notably easier. After educating myself, I contacted Essex County and was granted access to legally photograph the grounds of the Essex County Hospital. That being said, it’s one thing to read-up and educate yourself about a place—looking at it on a screen, sitting in a chair, probably sipping coffee. It’s quite another thing to physically be present at that same place, and feel the century of misery cold against your skin. It gets inside you really, and in its own way, it shows you what happened here.
The Overbrook Asylum was constructed, it seems, to hide the sick away, rather than help them. The lack of medical knowledge created confusion and fear of the mentally handicapped amongst the general public. Even if you didn’t know this arriving on the grounds, Overbrook would tell you. One would think that an abandoned asylum is a scary place, a place for horror films. Upon walking the grounds its not fear that you feel, but sadness.
The exterior of the structure seems more-or-less in sound shape, with a few expected cases of broken windows and overgrowth scattered throughout. The interior, however, is a different story altogether.
As if becoming a physical representation of all the pain that has occured within its walls, the inside of the asylum has become a place of nightmares. Paint peels from the walls akin to the flesh of a burn victim. Flakes of which, often the size of a your palm, completely cover the floors in areas. Patients’ names remain on the footboards of the beds. Wheelchairs and stretchers are scattered about, forgotten, covered in the dust of ages. Rotting curtains drape the windows of filth-covered rooms, light penetrating through the tears and holes. Christmas decorations still hang in certain areas of the complex. Wrapping paper lays about randomly. Window decals of elves dance about with presents in hand, completely oblivious to their surroundings.
All this tells a story, you just need to listen. Too often things of this nature are disregarded and forgotten, but Overbrook is trying to tell us something. It wants us to know what it has done, and to not repeat its mistakes.
Overbrook wants us to remember it when it is gone, but not to mourn its passing.
Weird NJ Announces New Special Issue:
We, here at Weird NJ magazine, are proud to announce a joint project between ourselves, and photographer Rusty Tagliareni: A 164-page full color, heavy gloss magazine devoted to abandoned and forgotten sites in and around the Garden State.
Weird NJ presents
Forsaken: Abandoned In And Around New Jersey
From photographer Rusty Tagliareni:
My interest in the abandoned dates back to my high-school days in the darkroom. Bathed in the red light and splashed with various chemicals, I spent much time in that small developing room discovering what a photograph actually was. It was fascinating to me how an outwardly simple image upon a piece of paper could evoke such a range of emotions.
My first outings to abandoned locations were ones of pure aesthetic reasons; I found that there were things in these places that I saw mimicked nowhere else. The way light creeps and slithers into dark corners, the abstract patterns found in the flakes of peeling paint, and the surreal imagery of nature once again reclaiming a place it had lost long ago. After spending some time with these places, I began to realize there was much more contained within these rotten walls than simply “a good picture.” There were stories here, ones of lives that had come and gone, events seen nowhere else.
Things of great importance, be they on a grand or personal level, it does not matter. This connection that I saw between the past and the present, a hushed tale spoken through rot and filth-covered floors, was one that I kept an earnest interest in from those days forth. When time permitted (and sometimes even when it didn’t), I continued to pursue these endeavors with the documenting, researching and sharing of abandoned places. What drove me in these efforts is still something I have trouble communicating in words, spoken or otherwise. Best I can describe it is the somber feeling of something slipping slowly through your fingers, here for a brief but beautiful interlude, then gone forever to the annals of history.
The purpose of my work is simply to enlighten.
My hope though, is that through this comes a better respect for these places and for those who document them.
Forsaken is available on newsstands or by visiting weirdnj.com.