After every loud explosion, there is always a suspended period of intense quiet. A second-splitting moment of calm that perforates our consciousness. Everything is about to change. That sliver of time between the impact and the aftermath is where photographer Mary Ellen Mark excelled in her decades-long career—that period which lies with bated breath as the stress hormones in one’s neurological pathways flood.
Earning the moniker of “concerned photographer” early on, Mark’s extensive catalogue of portraits and editorial photojournalism extolled her art form to humanitarianism. The artist’s lifelong fascination with mental institutions (which was sparked by her father’s institutional relationship for nervous breakdowns early in her life), led her to a month-long stay at the secure women’s ward of the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, alongside writer and licensed therapist Dr. Karen Folger Jacobs. The results are catalogued in newly reissued Ward 81: Voices (Steidl). Here, Mark’s photography and Fogler’s interviews with various females chronicle the amassing American mental health crisis and its institutional response in starkness and alienation, yet with a humanity and integrity that came to define Mark’s decades of work.
At some point, Mark begins to suspect if healing is possible in a place like an Oregon State Hospital. The stories of hiding keys, tight-lipped nurses, and Aesculapian breakdowns of all aspects of the human dimension were no doubt a lot to absorb, and evoke the current ongoing dialogue around mental health care in our troubled country. Among the dystopian array of images, though, there are also portraits of the women in Ward 81 experiencing moments of humanity—eating, drinking, sleeping, bathing, talking, dancing, crying, and laughing. A universalism is achieved, and that silence after combustion offers a unique a patch of peace.
Written by Julia Smith.