Spartanburg photographer Chuck Reback always had an affinity for horror movies – and abandoned buildings – so when he had the opportunity to photograph inside the now-dilapidated Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, he jumped at the chance.
Six years and three trips later, the results are his upcoming solo exhibition, “Asylum Images,” Nov. 2 through 27 in Gallery II of the Artists Collective | Spartanburg. A reception will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. on the third Thursday for ArtWalk Spartanburg.
The building was a state-run, Victorian-era mental hospital that was used up until 1994. The building now is privately owned and open for tours (www.talawv.com). The site has a lot of deferred maintenance and is deteriorating rapidly.
Reback, a self-taught photographer and artist originally from New York City who grew up in Massachusetts, first photographed in the building in 2015, when an extra day at a landscape photography workshop gave him the opportunity to tour the asylum and take a few shots along the way. “I then heard about a two- to three-day photo workshop in the asylum scheduled for April 2020. This would be a different type of workshop for me – the organizers arranged for two models, lighting and props. I had never shot models before, and seldom photograph people, so it sounded like a good learning opportunity in a unique setting,” he says. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the shoot to be rescheduled to November 2020, and Reback returned in July 2021 for the opportunity for more photos.
Reback found the asylum to be just what you’d expect – cold, damp and filthy – and he hopes the visitors to the exhibition will view it in much the same way. “Decay, spookiness, eerie, haunted … hopelessness,” he says of what he wants the photos to convey.
“The models were the real troopers. They were usually barefoot with little, if any, clothing,” he says. “It was a little spooky, but mostly just depressing to think of all the patients that went through there over the course of 100-plusyears and all of the treatments they received -- electroshock, ice baths, straightjackets, confinement and more.”
The process of photographing the asylum and assembling the exhibit have been rewarding for Reback. “This is my first solo show and the first where I have assembled a strong theme. Hopefully, it will encourage some more people to visit the asylum. In some images, I was trying to convey how mysterious the brain can be – what are the subjects thinking, why are they doing what they are doing? The difference between the interior of the asylum and the mind and the world beyond.
“This exhibit has been a very different exhibit for me,” he continues. “In addition to being my first solo exhibition, the subject matter was a departure from my usual subject matter. I primarily photograph landscapes and wildlife. I seldom work indoors, rarely photograph people and never before had worked with models. Hopefully, viewing this exhibit will challenge the audience much as creating it challenged me.”
Reback, a retired economics professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, says, “The Artists Collective | Spartanburg has pushed me artistically. It has introduced me to a lot of artists I would not have met otherwise.” He has been a member since 2017.