Staring into Colorado’s abyss of insanity

“These objects, with their dark hollows, seemed to me to be reliquaries, memorial vessels,” Modica wrote.

If it happens at all these days, reading a newspaper headline doesn’t typically incite much of a reaction. Perhaps a shrug or sigh, but the gamut of emotions often stops there.

But when Andrea Modica read the headline, “Hundreds of Skeletons Found at State Hospital” in  the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1992, it touched a nerve for the newly transplanted Manitou Springs photographer. That familiar feeling crept in that Modica gets when an idea for a shoot begins.

Lust.

“I call it lust because I can’t think of another word to describe the mixture of desire, anticipation, and fear that the possibility of a photograph inspires,” she wrote in her 2001 book.

Human Being

Simon Zalkind, curator at Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities, hangs one of Andrea Modica's photographs that are part of the "Human Being" series March 3 at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Modica used the archaic platinum printing process to depict the skulls of more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Human Being

Andrea Modica's photographs that are part of the "Human Being" series line the walls March 3 at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Modica used the archaic platinum printing process to depict the skulls of more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Human Being

Andrea Modica's photographs that are part of the "Human Being" series line the walls March 3 at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Modica used the archaic platinum printing process to depict the skulls of more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Human Being

Simon Zalkind, curator at Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities, discusses the contrast differences between Andrea Modica's original photographs and the prints shown in her book that are part of the "Human Being" series March 3 at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Modica used the archaic platinum printing process to depict the skulls of more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Human Being

Andrea Modica's photographs that are part of the "Human Being" series line the walls March 3 at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Modica used the archaic platinum printing process to depict the skulls of more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Human Being

Simon Zalkind, curator at Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities, lines up nails to be painted before hanging Andrea Modica's photographs that are part of the "Human Being" series March 3 at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Modica used the archaic platinum printing process to depict the skulls of more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Human Being

Andrea Modica's photographs that are part of the "Human Being" series line the walls March 3 at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Modica used the archaic platinum printing process to depict the skulls of more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Following a collaboration with former Colorado College professor of anthropology Michael Hoffman, that initial attraction Modica felt for the reported skeletal excavation resulted in “Human Being,” a series of nearly 40 photographs set to be displayed at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus starting March 5.

Printed using the archaic platinum printing process, the photographs in “Human Being” depict the skulls of the more than 130 skeletons excavated from a mass grave beside the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. The remains were discovered in 1992 during a prisoner-contracted expansion project at the institution formerly known as the Colorado Insane Asylum and later the Colorado State Hospital.

“These objects, with their dark hollows, seemed to me to be reliquaries, memorial vessels,” Modica wrote.

Now a photography professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Modica spent more than a year working beside Hoffman, who headed the anthropological excavation and analysis of the remains, as he posthumously diagnosed the former mental patients abandoned by the state, their families and, nearly, history altogether. Hoffman’s research, which will appear in explanatory captions beside each of the prints displayed at Fulginiti, concluded that the remains were largely of men who died of syphilis. Traces of metals suggested some were miners, and extra bones found in some of the skulls suggested the possibility that the patients were mentally challenged, according to Modica. Hoffman retired from teaching in 2009 and died in 2012 at the age of 67.

“I really came to feel like I was paying some tribute to these individuals by photographing them because they were abandoned,” Modica said. “And (when I started this project) I had just moved to Colorado after a lifetime in New York and was feeling like a bit of a cowboy myself, so I was very empathetic. I became a bit obsessed with the project, running around Dr. Hoffman’s lab all day for about a year.”

After publishing a book on the project in 2001, the last time Modica saw any of the “Human Being” pieces was at a showing of just one of the dozens of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A scientific enthusiast, she said the venue at Anschutz is the perfect one for an exhibition cultivated through the nexus of art and science.

“At The Met, it was hung in the context of art, and here it still is of course, but I’m thrilled that it will be hung in a place of science,” Modica said. “Art and science aren’t that far apart, and that’s something that I feel pretty strongly about.”

Simon Zalkind, curator at Fulginiti, echoed Modica’s thoughts on the pavilion’s unique capability to host such a collection. Zalkind decided to pursue “Human Being” after speaking with Modica, although he was originally aiming to secure a different collection of hers entitled, “Treadwell.” He said that the Colorado focus of “Human Being” attracted him to the collection as well as the ethical and historical questions it raises.

“It points to the enormous progress that’s been made on how we deal with people who have eccentric or extreme mental health issues,” Zalkind said. “The issue is larger than mental health, the issue is how a culture deals with people who simply cannot or will not fit in in one way or another.”

Previously owned by private collector Alan Manley, “Human Being” was recently donated to the Denver Art Museum and will appear at the Fulginiti Pavilion on loan from the DAM through May 23. An opening reception will be held in the pavilion from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. on March 5 and feature a conversation entitled, “Unearthed: The photograph as evidence and elegy” lead by Zalkind and Eric Paddock, curator of photography at the DAM.

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