Madison, Wisconsin Trip

Posted on October 8, 2010 with 0 comments

This trip did not come together smoothly. Right before leaving for this trip a major forest fire started in the mountains behind Boulder. Monday night I got stranded in Boulder; the roads home were closed for safety precautions and evacuation routes. Finally got to go home Tuesday afternoon, pack everything for my trip, and tried and keep a close eye on the direction of the fire. I live in the mountains and fortunately the wind kept the fire going in the opposite direction from me. Still, many of my friends had to evacuate, and many others were displaced by the fire and smoke. I wrote this on Tuesday:

There is a lookout with a clear view of the fire on Magnolia Road about 5 miles up. About 15 cars were stopped, people gathered with telescopes, binoculars, and cameras trying to get a view of the fire. Perhaps the most tragic and difficult thing was listening to these people talk. The majority of these people were trying to find their mountain, their home, some semblance of hope amidst the smoke…

“I think, that’s Gold Hill there, and that’s Logan Mill there… our house is right past that ridge.”

“You see that red roof, and that dirt road that winds up to the top? We are just on the other side there.”

“I think that is where our house is… do you know what ridge that is?”

Some people were even trying to find possible back routes to get closer to their homes to see if anything was left. One couple was camping when they heard about the fire and didn’t have time to get back to their home to evacuate. Their only concern was that their cats were okay. As people exchanged information and shared binoculars, small bursts of black smoke rose from the white smoke. Everyone would comment gravely knowing that the line of black smoke was someones home burning, but was it theirs? A rotation of people flowed through the lookout. People trying to see something, to find hope, to share their story. They were met by smoke.

I say “fortunately” the wind kept the fire in the opposite direction of my house, but the fire was still a great tragedy. I was able to leave on Wednesday as planned, but what I left behind was a city full of smoke, a fire that is still mostly uncontained, and some 150+ structures and homes that had been destroyed. This was constantly in my head as I traveled; it changed the mood of this trip greatly.

Beyond the forest fire, the trip was met with other difficulties. Communication with the institutions was unusually difficult. Communication is always a challenge with any institution, getting to the right person, getting the proper access granted, getting my purpose/project clearly described… it is rare that this process goes smoothly. Part of the problem is in not knowing the status of the remaining institutions. What is left that is of historical value? What is the condition of the campus? What kind of budget constraints is the institution operating under and do they have time/resources/people who can afford to take time to show me around? Do they care about the history that I am trying to save/document or do they see it as unnecessary? These questions are always met differently which means that my tactic of approach must always be fluid, changing, and flexible. How do I get what I need from them while also carefully respecting their needs?

The other problem is getting my information/request to the right person. Often messages get passed along and diluted in transit. If you’ve ever played the game Telephone you might understand how the message gets twisted and transformed from mouth to mouth. Unfortunately, this is not a childhood game and when my message gets translated incorrectly, you won’t find me laughing, but frantically back peddling and trying to re-cypher the original code.

Anyway, the trip seemed to be planned well enough before I left. Things fell apart quickly. I had two date set, two times pending but the institutions seemed to be on board, and two institutions that were unresponsive. The two pending institutions became unresponsive institutions upon my arrival in Wisconsin and I went from photographing 4+ institutions to fighting to get 2 photographed.

22 spoons swallowed by one patient

On Thursday, I photographed Winnebago Mental Health Institution in Oshkosh. This went very well. It used to be an old Kirkbride, but the original structure had long since been demolished. A few original structures remained, an old cemetery, and a wonderful museum in the old superintendents house. Like most all other state funded institutions, Winnebago is dealing with budget cuts and restrictions. I was directed towards this article: (
which discusses some of the issues that arise from lack of funding in mental health. Though the article refers to Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex NOT Winnebago, it is an interesting reference. When funding is cut, treatment and care suffer.

Thursday night I drove down to Madison, WI and picked my brother up at the airport. My sister was in Madison for the Ironman, and me and my brother were along for support. It was her third Ironman competition and she completed it in just over 13 hours!

Madison also has a historic mental institution, so I planned my photography around the Ironman. Friday I went up to Mendota Mental Health Institution. I had initially been told by administration that there really wasn’t much of anything left for me to photograph there… just an old smoke stack and cemetery. Upon arrival, I quickly realized this was misleading. Mendota used to be a Kirkbride layout, this had been demolished like Winnebago, but the campus still held a lot of history. I photographed the smokestack and cemetery, discovered there was still the old superintendents house and photographed this too. The campus is also located on sacred native american land, and several historic burial mounds are located throughout the campus. I photographed these as well, even if they didn’t directly correlate with my project. While the building that remained are not as old as some of the other institutions I have photographed, the history was still rich in the soil and trees. Stories linger on though the architecture no longer remains.

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