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photo-eye Book Reviews: Care of Ward 81

Care of Ward 81, Photographs by Bill Diodato. 
Published by Golden Section Publishing, 2010.
Care of Ward 81
Reviewed by Rena Silverman
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Bill Diodato Care of Ward 81
Photographs and text by Bill Diodato. Foreword by Mary Ellen Mark.
Golden Section Publishing, 2010. Hardbound. 64 pp., 46 color and black & white illustrations, 10x6-1/2".

Enter Ward 81, where the walls cake and crumble down into a pile of ruins once called a floor. Ahead, three symmetrical windows reveal a day's light, made leaden by cloud or snow (or dust stuck to the glass). Above, the patchwork of a ceiling hangs like a mouth without teeth, its framework bulging from humidity and neglect.

Bill Diodato has captured empty rooms like this at a state mental hospital in Oregon, where mentally ill women dwelled in the 70s. (It is also the location where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed.) The book progresses through a creative flow of colorful images. In the earlier pages, white typography pops out of the small, black frame, while the later pages have been dressed entirely in image.

The story behind Ward 81 has been considerately placed in the preface. Written by Diodato, the preface is necessary for introducing these photographs and the change that took place for the artist midway through his work. Diodato wrote that originally he blamed "Capitalist greed," as "the driving force behind the breakdown and decay of this once vital facility," Ward 81. But, after the Oregon State Legislature granted him permission to shoot the facility in 2005, Diodato's opinion changed. Based on his experience, he concluded, "...maybe this is one case where capitalist greed got lucky." The place looked so horrible, perhaps it was a good thing it closed down.

Care of Ward 81, by Bill Diodato. Published by Golden Section Publishing, 2010.
Diodato, as he notes in his book, is not the first person to explore this space. In 1976, photographer Mary Ellen Mark documented (in black and white) not only the ward, but also the women who dwelled in it. The ghosts of the women once photographed by Mark haunt Diodato's images. But, if Diodato created Care of Ward 81 in response to Mark's book, he did so in a different language. Mark documented the women, as they existed in the same space at the same time, while Diodato positioned the location as his subject, examining a space separated from its active time. Additionally, Diodato adds a hint of commercialism to his images. His bright colors offer an ironic upbeat lift to Mark's sharp, yet nostalgic, black and white imagery.

Mary Ellen Mark wrote the forward to Care of Ward 81. It is difficult to tell whether that was a good idea. On the one had, it provides book owners with a contextual reference, while humbling Diodato and brightening his personality as a photographer. On the other hand, it makes one research Mark's photographs, which have both an artistic quality and a political voice.

Care of Ward 81, by Bill Diodato. Published by Golden Section Publishing, 2010.
But, for someone who usually shoots portraits of celebrities for magazines, Diodato has done a fabulous job of putting together this book. It is very personal, and offers a younger generation a gentle reminder of the politics of mental health in the wake of a current and national medical insurance crisis.

Care of Ward 81, by Bill Diodato. Published by Golden Section Publishing, 2010.
 "Everything is so changed," wrote Mary Ellen Mark in the forward to Care of Ward 81, "Bill Diodato has transformed what was once so cold and institutional into a palette of vivid colors and textures."

The colors are lovely, but the crumbling walls and decay and political statements at the beginning of this book do not make a proper coffee table book; rather, a personal look into someone's beliefs illuminated by the tall windows and crackles and hues in Care of Ward 81.—Rena Silverman


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Rena Silverman is a freelance writer and art journalist. She has contributed to Examiner.com, the New York Art Beat, and Marie Claire magazine. You can learn more about her by going to www.renasilverman.com.

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