Book review | C/O Ward 81
One may be surprised by the cheerful pastel interiors displayed on the first pages of Diodato’s book, C/O Ward 81, which documents the decay of the once lively women’s psychiatric ward. Ward 81 resides in the Oregon State Mental Hospital along with Wards 82 and 83, the men’s psychiatric wards and also the setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Girlish colors, soft lighting, and joyful drawings adorn the images in Diodato’s monograph and provide a severe contrast to the somber subject matter.
Though I have limited knowledge of American psychiatric wards, I believe I can safely assume that they did not provide proper care for those suffering from mental illnesses but rather provided an outlet to mainstream society in which the mentally unhealthy could be detained.
Diodato’s “intention in publishing these images is to present the physical crumbling and decaying cells, which represent the end of old, corrupt, poorly-run asylums and bring about a sense of closure for the women of Ward 81” (Diodato).
Diodato effectively produced beautiful photos even with the grim underlying theme of sufferable institutionalization. According to Mary Ellen Mark, who photographed Ward 81 in 1976 and wrote the forward for C/O Ward 81, “Diodato has transformed what was once so cold and institutional into a palette of vivid colors and textures.” His photos show careful composition and make use of the natural light flooding into the ward through barred windows. Diodato subtly captures evidence of the past in the fading, hand-written nametags, a cold metal bed frame, a mop covered in paint chips from the wall on which it leans, and “curiously upbeat” wall designs (Diodato).
My favorite photos take up a two-page spread displaying views into four nearly identical (except for their varying vivid Crayola crayon colors) “deserted rooms where once women screamed and cried, where once women laughed and danced” (Mark). Diodato’s C/O Ward 81 successfully shows and praises the end of a faulty and at times harmful institution and acts as a warning against allowing history to repeat itself.