In the perspectives of history, the mad have not been out of sight for very long. As recently as 1800, they were tourist attractions. Every Sunday thousands of paying visitors would go to watch them caper and babble in Bethlehem Hospital ("Bedlam") in London or the Bicêtre in Paris. In the 19th century, philanthropy suppressed that, and shame closed the asylums to view, so that insanity was not only confined but also hidden. Our own culture, despite its vast interest in neurosis, has not been able to forgive its madmen their lunacy. Thus the last taboo subject for photography is not sex, probably not even death, but madness. The act of photographing a mad person seems to return to the voyeurism of Bedlam‑insanity as entertainment.
Hence, in part, the extraordinary interest of a show by New York Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, now on view at the Castelli Uptown gallery in Manhattan. Under the title "Ward 81," it records what Mark saw and experienced in the spring of 1976 during a six‑week sojourn in the women's section of the maximum security ward of the Oregon State Hospital. "I wanted," says Mark, "to do an essay on the personalities of people who are locked away to show a little bit of what they're like, especially the women. I didn't want to show them as exotically crazy." What resulted was, in fact, a lamentation: one of the most delicately shaded studies of vulnerability ever set on film.
Mark got permission from the patients and staff to live in an unused part of Ward 81. "If you're someone who photographs people, you're always an intruder," she says. "It took a while to get a rapport‑-the stronger photos didn't come till we got to know the women, and they got involved in the project. They felt they were making some kind of contact with the outside world."
It is by now the automatic fate of any woman photographer with a taste for images of neurosis to be compared with the late Diane Arbus. Actually, with Mark, the comparison is not very useful. The harsh solipsism of Arbus' shots, their frontal, specimen‑like character the sense that one is conspiratorially sharing taste for alienation‑-none of that emerges from "Ward 81." Mark does not skimp on desperation. There are grotesqueries, like the image of a male patient beginning a handstand‑-a knot of barely decipherable limbs, a weird sculpture on the glittering linoleum. But the general character of the photographs is to convey sympathy with these trapped lives. Nowhere is it manifested more poignantly than in her pictures of women relaxing in the hospital bath. Such subjects, in other hands, might have piled voyeurism on intrusion. But in "Ward 81" they acquire a sort of elegiac sweetness, as images of bathers tend to do. After seeing the show, it is hard to think about madness and confinement in the same way again.