If you heard Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sing “This Land is Your Land” at President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration, or if you sang it yourself in school as a child, if you’ve heard Bob Dylan sing “Hard Travelin’,” or really heard of Bob Dylan at all, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Woody Guthrie, whether you know it or not. Despite the relative youth of our nation, some things within it are like that — they belong to a secret history that lives in the American subconscious, remembered clearly by only a select few.
Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 and spent his childhood in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, spending much of his later life as an itinerant traveling across the United States as the Dust Bowl ravaged the Midwest. When he was fifteen, his mother was sent to an insane asylum after severely burning his father, and her illness — Huntington’s Chorea, more commonly known know simply as Huntington’s Disease — would stalk Woody for the rest of his life until it finally came to claim him in the late 1940s. His own battle with Huntington’s— and the Greystone Park State Hospital where he was treated in the late 50s — is the subject of Phillip Buehler’s photoessay Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty.
Buehler is primarily a photographer of ruins, whose subjects have ranged from New York’s Ellis Island and scrapped subway cars to the AMARC airplane “graveyard” in Tucson, AZ. While Buehler has previously used the ruins themselves as “a metaphor for how we learn to understand ourselves,” Wardy Forty marks the first time the photographer has turned his lens to a specific individual.
Wardy Forty is essentially two books. The first half is empty and haunted, documenting the abandoned campus of Greystone Park: pastel walls peeling to reveal washed-out colors underneath, shelves of disintegrating patient records, patient beds scattered in an observation cubicle. The scenes from the hospital are frightening, at first: because mental wards are now the setting for any number of horror stories, it is easy to imagine Woody abused and suffering in the halls and rooms Buehler shows us, but that would be a mistake. Paging further through these photos, one begins to see evidence of care and humanity in the decrepit Greystone. Look hard enough at one page, and the chair that is at first terrifying reveals itself to be a barber’s seat. Just opposite, a group of ladies’ hair dryers is pictured, and it’s easy to imagine old grandmothers sitting in them, trading gossip. Greystone was one of the first psychiatric hospitals to use the Kirkbride plan: staff were housed on-site, and patients were encouraged to engage in occupational therapy and help with the upkeep of the grounds. This was groundbreaking when Greystone was built in 1876. At the time, most of the mentally ill were housed in county jails. A close look at the photos in Beuhler’s photos reveals a system that, while imperfect, tried to preserve some sense of normalcy for its patients.
Which is not to say Woody Guthrie was comfortable there. In the second half of Wardy Forty, heartbreaking letters from Guthrie (both transcribed and photographed) show the musician beg for visits, his handwriting deteriorating, and begin think of himself as a sort of shepherd to his fellow patients. Guthrie’s disease was typified by random, involuntary movements of the limbs, loss of clarity and focus, and sudden changes in behavior which in the end left him immobile and mute. In the book we read about Woody’s loved ones repeatedly trying to bring pieces of his old life to him — his record player, his guitar — ultimately only to take them back, the songwriter too sick to operate either.
Pictures of Guthrie and anecdotes from his friends, his wife Marjorie and his children, Nora Lee and Arlo (who later became a musician like his father), fill the remaining pages. Repeatedly, accounts from Marjorie and Guthrie’s friend, Harold Leventhal, point out the fact that Woody was at first misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, because none of his attending doctors had ever heard of him and Guthrie kept insisting he was famous.
This, ultimately, appears to be what Wardy Forty is about. While previously, Buehler has photographed places that have been forgotten, fallen prey to irrelevance and decay, here the metaphor is clearer. When we look at ruins, we are affected not just because they are haunted by the past, but because they represent a possible future for us all. That for all the best intentions, for all the effort and motion of living, we can lose our place in the world. Our meaning can change or disappear completely. And, if not for the efforts of others, we can either be forgotten or saved from that fate.