Art Maker: Jon Crispin | Photographer

Last modified: Wednesday, July 29, 2015

For the past four years, Pelham photographer Jon Crispin, 63, has been photographing a collection of more than 400 suitcases left behind at the Willard Psychiatric Center (originally called the Willard Asylum of the Insane) in New York state. The cases, found in an attic after the facility closed in 1995, date from 1910 to 1965 and contain items that patients brought with them when they were admitted. Crispin says he hopes viewers of “The Willard Suitcases Project” will get a glimpse into the lives of those patients, some of whom lived for decades in Willard.

Hampshire Life: What is your creative process like?

Jon Crispin: When I am photographing, I like to have as direct a connection to the objects as possible. At this point in my life, I am so comfortable using a camera that I don’t have to pay much attention to the technical aspects of the process. So I quickly set up the items on my background and start looking for interesting angles. I am basically on auto-pilot at this point. And I work very quickly.

H.L.: Does a project usually start with a “Eureka!” moment?

J.C.: No, not at all. I just go right at it and don’t seem to need any real spark to get me started.

H.L.: How do you know you’re on the right track?

J.C.: It usually just feels right when I am shooting. Again, I don’t think too much about it; it is mostly about a feeling.

H.L.: What do you do when you get stuck?

J.C.: When I am really stuck, I know it right away and I just stop for the day. It doesn’t happen too often though.

H.L.: How do you know when the work is done?

J.C.: I usually try to photograph the cases (which are in the permanent collection of the New York State Museum) at least once a week. With this project, I’ll know I’m done with the first phase when I have shot all the cases in the collection. When I am finished shooting, I’ll start talking to publishers and galleries. I anticipate that I’ll be spending a lot of time traveling and talking about the project, so in many ways, I don’t think the work with the suitcases will ever be truly behind me.

H.L.: What did you do today that relates to your art?

J.C.: I work on the project every day. I get a ton of email from people who see the work online and it takes a lot of time to answer those emails. I regularly edit the images and upload them to those sites, and I have been fortunate to have the work published widely, so I spend time answering questions like this and talking to reporters. Additionally, I am busy with my regular freelance work, which is creative in its own way.

H.L.: Is photography art?

J.C.: Maybe. It took me ages to be comfortable with calling myself an artist. These days, nearly everyone has a camera and certainly not all photographs taken are art. But, by my definition, art is essentially meant to convey emotion, and I believe I am mostly successful at that.

— Kathleen Mellen

To view “The Willard Suitcases Project,” visit or Crispin’s wordpress site,


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