IT’S PERSONAL: Richard Avedon’s photographs from the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital  (March 2013)

Asylums and mental health institutions are a relatively modern construct in Western society.  Prior to the 19th century, the mentally ill were generally incarcerated, treated like animals and/or put out to sea. (Yes, the Ship of Fools is based on fact, not fiction.[1])  Reform of one of the largest asylums in Paris, the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière, during the French Revolution, inspired a wave of humanitarian reforms in the first half of the 19th century.  Thanks to advocacy and a push for political action, civil commitments were made in England to care for pauper lunatics beginning in the 1840’s, marked by the Lunatics Act of 1845.[2]

In the United States, and inspired by the reforms in England, Dorothea Dix began to lobby for political support of community care for the mentally ill, as well as investigate abuses and report squalid conditions of existing asylums.[3]  By 1860, Dix was a national figure who had pushed for legislation and appropriations at the state level, securing funding for underfunded institutions and for the building of much needed new facilities.

Between the 1860’s and the 1960’s, asylum reform would cycle through American history, often prompted by illustrated reportage beginning in the late 1880’s.  Twentieth century fashion photographer and portraitist, Richard Avedon would make a significant contribution to the reform movement in 1963, when he photographed the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital in Jackson, Louisiana, in February of that year.  Per personal correspondence, Avedon stated that he intended to send prints of his images to President Kennedy as visual support for his Community Mental Health Care Act.[4]  In addition, Avedon allowed non-profit organizations in Louisiana use of his photographs, without fee, as part of campaigns for raising awareness and fundraising for care facilities. This paper will situate Richard Avedon’s Mental Institution photographs within a larger historical context of photographic advocacy and reportage as relates to institutional reform, and illuminate the artist’s proactive engagement with civil commitment in caring for the mentally ill and his helping hand in the political process.  (To read more, please contact the author at



1.  Michel Foucault. Madness and civilization; a history of insanity in the Age of Reason *New York: New American Library, 1967), 47-48

2.  Elaine Showalter, “Victorian Women and Insanity,” in Victorian Studies (Vol. 23, No. 2, Winter, 1980): 160.

3.  Tana Brumfield Casarez, “Dorothea Lynde Dix (1824 – 1180),” Muskingum University, accessed February 18, 2013,

4.  Informally referred to as the “Community Mental Health Care Act,” the bill is formally titled the “Mental RetardationFacilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act,” National Archives, accessed March 2, 2013,