I learned about Renier’s school from a friend in a bar. I learned how a developmentally disabled guest was treated, living like an animal in a dungeon. I had to find out about this mysterious man. Eventually, I earned the trust of the school, and armed with a burdensome 8×10 camera, I set to work. It turns out that there was no mysterious creature in the dungeon. They didn’t even have a dungeon.
The Rainier School is a public institution for children with developmental disabilities located just outside of Seattle at the base of beautiful Mount Rainier. The “school” at the Rainier School disappeared many years ago. There are no youth. Many of its inhabitants have lived there all their lives. They were betrayed by their minds, and in many cases their bodies. The majority of its residents are now elderly, and this sprawling campus (with a swimming pool, bowling alley, restaurant, and its own farm) is now home to only about 370 people, about 20% of its peak capacity.
My goal was to document the final days of the school being turned into a holiday home. In a way, it’s a heavily guarded prison. On the other hand, it is a charming country club. At present, when we avoid the institutionalization of the mentally retarded, the Rainier school and many similar institutions are victims of our social progress. These images represent the end of an important social obligation and the unique culture it created.
Much of Rainier’s school was empty and closed long before I got there. I think that other similar institutions have closed completely. But it is my understanding that while many will not be sent to a residential facility these days, some still need to be sent. So while institutions may not look like big campuses in the future, I don’t expect them to disappear completely.
I have met many people with disabilities. Some were outgoing, energetic and happy. Others, not so much. I met a few who, unfortunately, seemed to live only in their heads. All had their own characteristics.
I have photographed institutionalized people before (Captured Youth). These teenage inmates were not at home, nor were they related to their state-sponsored environment.
The people in these images saw their life situation as a home, which is what the Renier school aspired to. So I placed my subjects in the environment, whereas in the past I would often extract my subjects by simply photographing them against a black background. Overall, I saw Renier’s school as a positive and supportive living space.
I have been a photographer my entire adult life, at least until I retired from the photography department at Evergreen State College. in 2020. Sometimes I still teach. My work is in several major museums and I exhibit my work where and when I can.
Since the late 1990s, much of my work has focused on people who are institutionalized or state-run. I’m not even sure how it happened, but I photographed a lot of prisoners, men and women, youths and adults, people with disabilities and, of course, this work of the mentally retarded.
Some of my latest projects include portraits of my neighbors in covid quarantine since spring 2020 and a collaborative project with an inmate who asked me to take pictures of the “less fortunate” homeless so that he can then make drawings.
I also took pictures landscapes of the american west for years. I planned to visit and photograph a small town in east Texas founded by my ancestors. They were slave owners and I wanted to know more about what is going on there today. But covid put these plans on hold.