autopsy-table

Morgue and autopsy theatre at St. Elizabeths Hospital, designed by Walter Freeman.  Before he became famous for inventing the transorbital lobotomy, Freeman was the medical director at this, the only federal insane asylum.  He was obsessed with the organic roots of mental illness, and commissioned Blackburn Laboratory in order to further study it.  This autopsy theatre is now abandoned in the basement.  The jars in the rear to the left used to contain the largest collection of human brains in America; when the morgue was abandoned they were donated to another institution.  After leaving St. Elizabeths, Freeman would tour the country in his “lobotomobile”, performing thousands of lobotomies at other asylums in order to demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of his technique.  He was ordered to stop after killing a patient.  Freeman was never, in fact, a licensed medical doctor.

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This is the small, two-tray morgue of US Marine Hospital, Memphis.  Sadly, morgues are often the first destination of taggers and vandals when visiting abandoned hospitals.  Although the size of this morgue may not be particularly impressive, its condition is - the copper neck brace on the autopsy table is still intact, and there is not a sign of vandalism anywhere.  Like many morgues, this one lacked windows - so artificial lighting and light painting had to be used to give an impression of what it would have looked like.

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Behind the scenes.  In 2010, I finally decided to take on the challenge of getting a well-lit shot of the morgue at Rockland State Hospital, the half-abandoned asylum that is mentioned in Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl”.  It is pitch-black throughout the entire mortuary suite; both rooms pictured here are completely boarded off to the point of being lightproof.  So I schlepped in a 200 watt/second portable strobe capable of a mere 25 pops at full power on a giant lead-acid battery, triggered by a peanut.  I attached a softbox to this, but didn’t turn it on yet - I had to figure out how to light the foreground first.  I set up my camera via light from a couple of LED lanterns, and focused on the autopsy table.

With all the reflective surfaces in here, lighting turned out to be a real herculean effort in terms of moving two speedlights triggered by a short-range RF trigger attached to my camera’s hot shoe, and then light painting with a 200 lumen tactical torch to fill in the gaps.  When I got that nailed down, I attached the peanut and powered up the strobe - I’d have 25 (at most) chances to get this right.  The first dozen or so all came out rubbish - I kept having to reposition the strobe to avoid glare.  My battery was halfway to dead.  I finally got it positioned right - and then one of my speedlights didn’t fire for the next several shots.  I was almost out of juice on the light essential to lighting the back storage room.  Finally, I got this capture, and a few variants which I liked less - then the strobe died, and it was time to pack up.  Thankfully, my goodly young photo assistant invited me to join her at her place in nearby Nyack, NY, for rest and relaxation, so I didn’t have a long drive after 5-hour shoot - to get one photo.

It’s not perfect.  There are a few harsh shadows that I dislike.  But even being a perfectionist when it comes to my work, I am willing to admit that it’s pretty good.  Given what I was working with, I think it came out rather smashingly - and indeed gives an honest impression of what the mortuary suite at the asylum looked like at that point in time.

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