The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia aka Weston State Hospital is over 150 years old. During that incredible span of time, Trans-Allegheny has been a sanctuary for the mentally ill, the subject of civil war raids and even a gold robbery. It’s a grand library now and a National Historic Landmark for the stories it holds with more being created every day.
I could write the complete history of Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum here but that wouldn’t be my story. You can find the history on the asylums website as well as a nice mixture piece by my good friend and fellow explorer/artist Walter Arnold who arranged and accompanied me on this shoot.
Walter and I like to get together photograph places like this as often as possible. The content we create from the shoots fuel our businesses. With him in North Carolina and me up in the Finger Lakes of New York it requires a bit of planning. At the time, Weston was about halfway between us so it turned out to be the ultimate meet-up point.
A Short Preface
In 2009 I wrote my first blog entry here. You can go back and read it if you missed it at this link. To spare you a long read, it is a story about a ghost town and how it inspired a video game and movie. In the article I mention the Mobius strip and circles that we all experience in our lives and how creativeness blooms when we learn to recognize them. This story is another one of those circles for me and by the end, you will know why.
We both arrive late in the afternoon before our shoot and head to the Asylum to scope out our shots for the next day. The standard Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum tour is not our agenda during this trip. Our shoot would be off hours from the regular tours, alone in the place, and in the dark. Originally we planned to shoot for just 8 hours. 4 hours dedicated to photography of 5 buildings, 4 hours for scenes for a video we are collaborating on that will come later. We ended up scheduling a second 8 hour shoot about a month later when we ran out of time to get all footage we wanted.
With interior tours going on and the site gearing up for a Halloween haunted house on site, we decided to spend this pre-shoot time discussing our plan and shooting some exterior shots of the asylum.
The ominous castle like architecture of these old asylums really gets my creative juices flowing. This buildings style is called the “Kirkbride Plan” and was developed by Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride. The story behind his design is fascinating and can be found here. Basically, beauty on the outside and essentially a prison on the in. It is my opinion that the inviting look of these places and what happened inside them is what terrifies people today. Although at the time, the design itself was built with the patients welfare and comfort in mind. The crazy list of reasons you could be committed to Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is part of what makes this place famous as well. You can see that list in my story about Willard Asylum where I first referenced it.
The clouds were really great for some long exposure shots so I got set up for them while I still had some light.
With the sun setting it was time to hit the hay for the evening and be ready for the long shoot the next morning.
Shoot Day One
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Women’s Ward
Walter and I arrive at 7:30am to begin unloading 2 vehicles full of equipment which the facility allowed us to store in their main lobby while we explore the other buildings. It was a brisk October morning so the incentive to move quickly went far beyond a large coffee this morning. We both bring our full complement of still and video equipment which we now know was overly ambitious of us. There is so much to see here, Walter and I could probably go back and shoot another 8 hours without too much trouble. There are 5 areas to cover. 4 out buildings and the main building which has 4 floors to cover. And as I write this now the math for a single day shoot makes no sense to me. Funny how hindsight is 20/20 eh?
After a short information tour by guide we are set free to explore. Our first target is the Women’s Ward. This building is the most crumbling of all the buildings on the lot and has a true abandoned feel. Other than Photography and Ghost hunter tours, no other business is conducted or entry is allowed here. To me, this is the best part of the Asylum.
We ended up spending a little over the first hour in this one location. The challenge for us in these abandoned buildings is the lack of artificial light.
To get the most light in the shadows while still preserving the highlights HDR is a must. To do this, many exposures are shot and then later combined into one raw 32bit image. When shooting exposures, also called brackets for these shots it takes quite a bit of time. The longest exposure in the 9 brackets that I shot to cover this range of light being 30 seconds, and the shortest being .8 seconds. A single HDR set can take up to 3 minutes to shoot, and that is not counting composing the image, checking lines (in the dark), equipment set up.
The end game is that each of these shots take quite a bit of time to take. If you combine that with it being such a cornucopia of scenes and textures you can easily lose hours in this single three floor building.
My final image here is probably my favorite and it’s not for the reason you think. Hint: It all comes down to one little sign.
And while it may not be the most essential part of the games storyline, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is in the game and I will be releasing an episode based video series highlighting our journey to reach it. My friends Walter, Jay, and some others will be featured in the videos and they will be available on my video game channel “The Ancient Gamer” on Youtube. The game releases on November 14th and I will have videos starting shortly after. In the meantime, it’s off to the Geriatric Ward.
Just a short walk away is the second most deteriorated building on site the Geriatric Ward and probably the most disturbing. First stop there for us was the morgue.
Now, you might be thinking, “Why is there a morgue in the Geriatric Ward?” (or maybe not) I was a bit shocked myself by this. And from what I am told, the morgue was hidden from the patients in this ward. Bodies would be brought in through a secret passage that was blocked off so patients could not see them being brought in. Of course looking back it seems like this ward was basically a waiting line for the morgue. That just adds to the sadness of what some of these places became later in history. More about the economy and less about helping the individuals there. Not sure if there was anything in the casket. Pretty sure I didn’t want to know if there was.
Shockingly, right across the hall from the morgue is a beauty salon. There was only one chair in here but I liked the light and composition of it.
Most of this building is void of any other scenes like these. The rooms have been emptied out, maybe for some future project. Here is a shot from the third floor. Nothing but doors, cool doors nonetheless.
Not sure what it was, but these ramp hallways between the floors gave me more creeps than the morgue did.
That about raps the 2nd hour of the shoot with 3 buildings to go today. When you book the back-to-back tours like we did it is required to take a lunch break at noon. Our goal is to finish photography in the 3 remaining buildings in the next two hours so that we have a full 4 hours on the afternoon shift to capture all the video that we need. So the next stop is the Medical Ward and the Violent/Forensics Ward.
Medical Ward And the Violent/Forensics Ward
Well, after scouring the medical ward for about 20 minutes we were unable to find any scene suitable for the photography portion of the shoot. With the Violent ward and main building left, we decide to quickly move on.
The Violent ward has an interesting story. Apparently there is/was a tunnel from the Weston City Jailhouse that leads to the basement of the jail. Those convicted of violent crimes would be transported underground directly to the facility. This building also conveniently housed the forensics lab. Talk about hardcore sentences.
Most of this ward is set up for tours with informational posters on the walls displaying information about events that took place here. In this next shot I used the left column to hide one of the posters that was on the wall in the background.
You might notice that with a lot of these shots I am using the same settings and same lens. Let’s talk about the settings first.
With HDR you have 2 routes that you can go. You can shoot minimal brackets, usually 3 exposures at +2 EV spacing. Typically this would be -2, 0, +2 exposures. I have learned that in high contrasting light the more you give the HDR program to work with, the better your results. It was pitch black in the dark areas of the photo above and blindingly bright in the light areas. 9 exposures at 1 EV spacing gives you -4,-3,-2,-1,0,1,2,3,4 exposures to work with. No excessive exposure overlap to fill in by the HDR program. Thus, giving you better end results for a more natural looking scene. No matter how sophisticated the HDR program says it is, this is just a fact. If the data isn’t there, the program has to make it up. I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to allow that in my images.
Now with that said, if I am shooting a waterfall or landscape outdoors there is generally less dynamic range to deal with so the 3 exposure method works just fine for most situations. Bracket accordingly. 😉
The second part of this equation is the amazing ZEISS Batis 2.8/18 lens. I got this lens new from a friend who accidentally bought it for the wrong mount. It has turned out to be one of my favorite interior shot lenses for situations like this shoot. I have several Zeiss lens and all of them are of the highest quality. Tack sharp edge to edge at almost all stops. Very low distortion if any and zero chromatic aberrations. In these high dynamic range situations, that is must for super clear imaging. Here is one last shot of a visitation booth at the violent ward with this lens. Just a single exposure this time.
I was really impressed with how well preserved this building is as well as a little disturbed by its history. We did manage to find this old commissary area that was pretty “abandoned” looking.
That about does it for the out buildings on the site and our first four hours. It looks like the main building will have to wait until our after lunch session. We pack our gear in the main building and head out to a little place called Deb’s Diner where I proceed to have the best Toasted Cheese sandwich and Tomato soup I have ever had. And those that know me, know my bar for those two things is quite high. We liked the food so much there that we ate there when returned for our additional shoot in November.
Day One Part 2
Upon our return our guide leads us on a mandatory “get a lay of the land” tour of the main building. All four floors of it. About midway through we both realize that this one building will take at the very least the rest of the day and that a return trip will be needed to shoot any video. The best laid plans as they say.
The Main Building
The main building has some areas that are restored to represent the condition that they were in during peak operations. Doctors offices, Nurses quarters, a library, apothecary and more. Here is a shot that demonstrates the level of detail in the restoration areas.
While these areas were meticulously recreated and maintained, we were more interested in the “abandoned” areas off the normal tour. We begin to explore the vast west wing of the asylum. One of the first rooms we find is loaded with toys. Dolls, music boxes, stuffed animals, board games all adorn this single room.
There were pieces of candy and coins randomly dispersed in this and other rooms. It was all quite creepy to us. Of course this was compounded for me as Walter had been shooting in this room earlier and left this music box playing for me when I arrived.
Later on we learned that the candy, coins, and toys where all there to entice paranormal activity. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum often hosts ghost hunts and studies. This brought me some sense of release but I still don’t forgive Walter for freaking me out with the music box! 😉
We continue to explore the west wing. It isn’t too long before we uncover more great scenes such as this virtually untouched room hidden away in one of the wards.
Just one ward over from this room we find a curious scene with some beautiful light.
Paranormal investigators staged this room as well. The thought is that these games and settings will create a better environment for the investigation. Even though this is a set scene I cannot help but picture the patients here. Rehabilitating with a strategic game of checkers in the afternoon sun.
And just like that our time is up for this visit. The rest of the photos in this story are from our return in November.
The Return to Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
With our return, the schedule would be the same. Except, this time around we would spend our morning shooting video as well as part of the afternoon. We will have video for this shoot up by the end of the year, time providing. After we finish up with the video gear, we spend the remaining 2 hours exploring more of the main building. With one exception. We will be returning to the Women’s ward for a special photograph and our first encounter with, something.
The Women’s Ward and the Ghost?
Early on in the shoot Walter asked me if I would mind shooting a headshot for his upcoming book. Of course I was happy to do it. Since for some reason, he wasn’t keen on using this shot I took of him…
..we decided to return to the Women’s ward for the backdrop as it was the most abandoned building on the lot.
We took a bunch of photos but Walter settled on this shot.
I think it came out pretty awesome if I do say myself.
Along with the head shots, we decided to play around a bit with light painting. It was pretty cool because we actually did some light painting on one of the very first shoots we did together at The Jackson Sanitorium. You can see those shots im my story at this link.
For light painting we can and have used just about any source. But, for this occasion I brought my trusty PixelStick. I bought my PixelStick years ago through their kickstarter campaign. It’s pretty cool and allows you to paint bitmapped graphics in 3D space while taking long exposures.
Essentially, we setup the camera on a tripod and triggered a 20-30 second exposure while I walk through the shot with the PixelStick running. The graphics displayed on the stick are “Drawn” on the exposure. But because there is no light on me, I do not appear. The results can be amazing. Here is a shot I did for my friend Don Komarechka a few years back.
I always try to pack the Pixelstick when other photographers are going to be around because it is so much fun to shoot with.
While Walter and I used his camera to shoot the image as I was operating the Pixelstick. In the middle of the shoot something very odd happened. We were shooting 20 second long exposures with an ND filter on the camera in order to get the scene dark enough for the Pixelstick to show up and me not to. Shooting with this thing requires counting and timing. I would count 3-2-1 go, and he would start the exposure as I would continue to count, trigger the pixelstick and walk through the frame. I counted, he hit the shutter and the shutter clicked immediately. Odd since we had been shooting a series of 10 second shots with no changes in between. Here is a side-by-side of the unprocessed raw files from Walter’s camera.
Both of us immediately freaked out as we both know it is not possible to get that much light into the camera with those settings. Especially with an ND filter and almost complete darkness around us. The shot on the right looks as though someone took the ND filter off the camera and set off a small nuke in the room. The settings don’t make sense either, they are both exactly the same. To this day his camera never misfired or acted up again.
This isn’t the first time something strange has happened when I was shooting an asylum. A few years ago in Pennsylvania we were shooting a room With open windows and torn curtains on them. In the middle of the shot a hanging lamp started swinging as if blowing in a cross breeze. Yet, the torn curtains on the windows remained motionless. I called over another photographer to look at what was going on. While leaving their camera in the adjacent room to check it out we suddenly hear their camera start taking random photos. It took her almost a minute to get it to stop which she did only by pulling her battery.
Now I do not believe in ghosts personally, and by nature I am a very common sense, scientific person. To this day, I cannot explain those events.
Having had our fill of the Women’s ward and it’s weirdness, we make a hasty retreat back to the main building to explore the east wing a bit.
East Wing Main Building
The East wing is where some of the more specialized areas were. There were doctors and nurses offices, some specialty patient rooms. It wasn’t long until I ran into some more weird.
Worth noting, this image got quite a reaction when I first posted it on social media during the shoot. Many who saw it thought she was a real person. Several displays in the lobotomy area of the asylum are pretty gruesome. Lobotomies were performed quite regularly in rooms such as this one, which was not staged.
The halls of the east wing prove to be some of the most compelling scenes in the main building. Even the halls themselves speak volumes.
Desperate to find something a little less “Fright Night” we explore deeper into the Asylum. It’s almost time to wrap up our time here when we come across three final rooms with interesting contrasts in them. First is an empty room with what looks to be an elementary school desk and a second with a small piano. The third, a wheelchair? Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
And there you have it. My biggest shoot and story in a long time. When I write a story of this length, usually I will either pare this down or split it up into chapters but hey, this is Halloween! If you are a photographer, you really need to test your mettle here. While this is not the easiest place to shoot, it is well worth it. We are cold and tired and both have 6 hour drives ahead of us. It’s time to go. Hopefully you found this adventure fun and inspiring. If you would like to see the rest of the photos from the shoot, please feel free to visit my gallery at this link.
Do yourself a favor, go visit Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum! Heck, visit all West Virginia, it’s awesome! And make sure to tune in to our Fallout 76 video game adventure coming soon here! See you on the road!