Telling the Stories of an Abandoned Mental Institution

Clown babe Mackenzie Moltov in an abandoned mental institution

For the past few years, we’ve been on a great journey with sideshow performer and clown babe MacKenzie Moltov, photographing a variety of abandoned locations as a way to bring life and beauty back to structures which have fallen into modern day ruin.  We’ve explored long lost amusement parks after a blizzard’s destruction, roadside fairy tales with our own twisted little red riding hood, and a swinger’s resort which (unknown to us) was being used as a hideout for a fugitive killer as we shot nudes in the shattered tikki lounge.  We began to to sift through our travels, assembling the best images to complete our ultimate goal with one huge cumulative project, when one more location came our way and we couldn’t resist…just one more.

We are obsessive with researching our locations, and this one had too fascinating a story not to delve into head first.  The institution for the mentally and physically handicapped opened in 1911, and was the first totally self reliant village of it’s kind, with it’s own farmland, waste removal and power plant.   Within 10 years, however, overcrowding led to deplorable conditions and horrific cases of neglect, torture and rape.  The laboratory was used to conduct medical experiments on the children of the facility, including being the first human test subjects of the polio vaccine.  The doctor in charge was said to have extracted brains and hearts of dead children and keep them in glass jars on display in the laboratory.  Children were often seen wandering the grounds covered in feces, naked and malnourished.

Abandoned locations shoots are the ultimate photographic challenge.  You are trespassing and breaking the law.  The locations themselves are dangerous, floors rotting out beneath your feet, ceilings caving in, broken glass, and air so thick with years of disease and decay it’s difficult to breath. No amount of research or planning will guarantee you’ll even be able to get in. What’s accessible one day, is heavily patrolled the next, and if you can scramble your way in, you still have bags of camera gear, lighting equipment and suitcases of looks.  Without knowing what rooms you’ll find, there is little planning in advance and MacKenzie has to quickly read the scene, dig through clothing she doesn’t know in the dark, as we scout the area and quickly set up lights.  There’s a balance of trying to take the time to make complete hair and costume changes, while being fast enough to shoot the scene and get out unnoticed.  Your model is nude and cold and you try to focus on creating art, being technically accurate in the worst conditions possible, while feeling the weight of every single unspeakable act of horror that was committed there.  And it’s terrifying.

Our friends at Philly Aids Thrift once again came to our rescue.  With only a week’s notice, stylist Stephen Michael Quick (Ann Archy Artist), pulled looks that embodied several characters that we wanted to explore.  We had a local friend who was instrumental in going out ahead of us to get the lay of the land.  I’m incredibly proud of this one, and I can’t wait until our final project is complete, to share more incredible details about these vanishing locations and our adventures shooting them.

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Photography by Lori Foxworth and Paul Cofield of Black, White and Raw Photography
Model: MacKenzie Moltov
Styled by Stephen Michael Quick of Philly Aids Thrift

2 thoughts on “Telling the Stories of an Abandoned Mental Institution”

  1. Wow. These images capture the atmosphere of torture and abuse. It almost feels like the model is a ghost, still residing there to educate visitors brave enough to break in and visit on what hannious crimes had been committed there.

  2. Thanks, Parker. This one was really one of the saddest places we’ve explored. I hope we did a small service in honoring the people who suffered there.

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