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Photo exhibit to showcase W.Va. asylum

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Photographer Sterling "Rip'' Smith has always had an affinity for architecture, the image and the story. After hearing about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, Sterling decided to pay the infamous stone mason facility a visit.

Captivated by the size and condition of the historic site, Smith set out to do a study of the property using the power of the lens.

"I was immediately hooked,'' he said. "I said, `I need to photograph this building.'''

Over the course of a few months and several trips to Weston, Smith's latest book, "Asylum,'' was created. An exhibit at the Washington Street Artists' Cooperative in Charles Town features 20 images from the book.

"The images are an exploration of an extraordinary historical site in the heart of rural West Virginia,'' a press release said.

Built in the 19th century, Smith said the asylum was designed to provide patients with as much sunlight and air as possible.

"That was considered to be healing,'' Smith said.

The building was also built to hold only 250 patients, but was quickly overfilled.

"[It] got out of control very fast,'' Smith said. "By all accounts, they were really just crammed in together like sardines, and it was very, very bad.''

Smith thought it important to photograph the building for those reasons -- to be able to tell the story of the history of mental illness and the evolution of treatment.

"On one hand, the support and the building of these asylums in the 19th century represented recognition that mentally ill people needed medical-type treatment and needed treatment rather than being stuck away in a jail,'' he said. "But, because they had so little real knowledge about what mental illness was about, by today's standards, a lot of the treatment was considered ... barbaric.''

He found that to be difficult, because of the emptiness of the building. There were not a lot of indicators left behind as to what specifically went on there. Smith decided to focus on the mood of the asylum instead.

"I tried to capture the feel of the place strictly by the way the light filters in through the windows and looking down the halls, you see light coming through the doors,'' Smith said.

Smith also had in mind the importance of historic preservation when photographing the building. He was impressed by the condition it had been kept in, as well as its use for tours and a museum.

"He bought it with the idea that he wanted to preserve it and restore it. And I thought that was a really good thing, because buildings like this are constantly in danger, unless somebody makes a commitment to them,'' he said.

While the project is primarily visual, Smith did a fair amount of historical research to give context to his images and make a complex project more cohesive.

"This was more a matter of being able to actually compile a project where it had a number of layers,'' Smith said.

The exhibit will be on display at 108 North George Street in Charles Town. A reception will be held at the gallery from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 6.


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