David Maisel – Library of Dust


Photographs copyright of David Maisel courtesy of Chronicle Books

As a designer, principally developing sterile barrier systems for medical products, it was jarring for me to see David Maisel’s photographs from his recent book, Library of Dust. Seeing containers in these deplorable conditions is the stuff of nightmares for me. So I see his photographic content in a different light than most, but nevertheless, I think that these color photographs are beautiful and mesmerizing.

Primarily, Maisel’s book is a collection of photographs of deteriorating copper canisters. What makes these canisters unique is that they contain the unclaimed cremated remains of Oregon State Hospital’s deceased residents. This mental hospital had a policy, between 1912 to mid-1970’s, of cremating those who pass away at the hospital and storing their ashes in copper canisters, a very basic funeral urn. The hospital maintains custody of all the canisters that go unclaimed. Over time, due to the poor storage conditions and the canister’s materials of construction, many of the exterior surfaces of these copper urns have radically changed.

To further place further emphasis on the current conditions of these containers, Maisel has photographed each canister isolated on a black cloth. He set his lens to a narrow depth of field, such that the front edge of the canister is in sharp focus and the canister fades into a softly defined profile, while still retaining its basic form.

I feel that the sharp focus of the canister’s front edge represents the “here and now”. Our current reality is usually clear, sharply seen and experiential felt. At any given moment we know what is before us and usually around us. That given moment almost immediately begins to fade in our memory as we continue to experience new events, new sensory inputs, changes to our environment, a continuation of our personal dialog with time. Thus the softening of the canister as it recedes away from us then represents our fading memory by the effects of passing time.

I also see the container fading back into the dark like a memory, much like the person who once was flesh and soul, but now the cremated remains resting within the canister. The inky black background is dark as night, and this darkness can also represent the mysterious unknown, much like death itself.

Maisel has captured the current state of these canisters; the deformational changes to the sculptural shape, the ensuring rainbow of colors exploding on the exteriors, the scarred surfaces, the oxidation blooms, the deterioration of the identification labels, missing labels and illegible embossed numbers. There are now the new markings, the copper seams disintegrating, and the abstract qualities of the color. These basic funeral urns have now taken on qualities like the creations by the abstract expressionist, such as Jackson Pollack, Barnett Newman, Mark Toby or Sam Francis.

Taking an object and placing it outside of its normal external context, thus creating an aesthetic object, harkens back to Edward Weston famous Pepper studies, and then forward in time to the beautiful platinum photographs of NYC gutter trash by Irving Penn. A photographer can change the understanding and appreciation of an object by placing it in a unique setting. For some reason, we can now see what we could not see before. We have been shown something “new”, which in fact was there all along.

The book also contains photographs of the abandoned portion of J building within this same hospital complex, including the crematorium, physician offices, hallways, meeting rooms and the storage area of these containers. Most of these interior landscapes show us a facility that is in a similar condition as the copper vessels. The walls are deteriorating with peeling paint, there are mounds of debris on the floors, and even the floor tiles are lifting up from the floor’s substructure. The condition of this abandoned facility is similar in nature to the deterioration that is occurring to the copper containers. Maisel is documenting what naturally occurs to all things when provided enough time; from dust to dust.

I have found Maisel’s photographs of these detoriating vessels and abandoned facility to be very beautiful, thought provoking, even though the subject matter makes me feel uncomfortable.

The really big hardcover book measures an impressive 13 ½” x 17 1/4“, and with the full bleed photographs, provides printed images that are 13 1/8” x 17 1/16”.


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by Douglas Stockdale

5 thoughts on “David Maisel – Library of Dust

Add yours

  1. I have one of these. The ashes are from my Great Grandmothers brother who had been in Oregon State hosp for about a month before he passed due to general paralysis caused by late stages of syphilis which at that time there was no cure for He was 45 years old when he died at Oregon State Thank You for sharing His & the other residents story’ thru photos

  2. We were contacted and received the cremanes of my wife’s great grand father a few years ago. Would love to see the film. Thank you

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