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'Human Being' photo exhibit is a marriage of art, science, history

May 4, 2015 Updated: May 4, 2015 at 2:08 pm
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photo - An image from "Human Being," by Andrea Modica. Courtesy Denver Art Museum: A. E. Manley Photography Collection, 2014.232.
An image from "Human Being," by Andrea Modica. Courtesy Denver Art Museum: A. E. Manley Photography Collection, 2014.232. 

Art can travel, in truth, to places that history and science venture only in theory.Cold facts alone were enough to draw photographer Andrea Modica to the haunting subject matter that became her photo series "Human Being," on exhibit at the Art Gallery at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

A native New Yorker, Modica was living in Colorado in 2000 when she read the newspaper story that inspired the series. Workers breaking ground for a facility on state hospital grounds in Pueblo had unearthed more than 150 skeletons buried more than a century ago in plain pine caskets, in unmarked graves. The bodies, most of them men in their 40s and presumed to belong to patients, never were claimed and the burials were unrecorded. While the skeletons revealed some telling details, including signs of illnesses such as syphilis, which untreated can lead to insanity and death, the individual biographies - forgotten lives and nearly forgotten deaths - remain shrouded in mystery.

For an artist such as Modica, that's where the real tale began.

"It was such an amazing story before I ever thought about photographing it," said Modica, a professor of photography at Philadelphia's Drexel University whose work is included in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, among others. She got permission to photograph the skeletal remains, which then were housed and undergoing study at Colorado College. "These people were probably put in the hospital by family, by parents, and abandoned completely. In my imagination, they probably were cowboys or miners, and they left the East Coast and went out West and then this happened to them."

Modica saw echoes of her own journey in forensic details revealed by the late Michael Hoffman, a CC professor and anthropologist who provided historical and descriptive context for the project.

"I was feeling like a cowboy. I had also left home to come to Colorado," said Modica, who also published a photo book of the series. "Chances are, if they were unclaimed, they were probably very far from where they started. I had just moved to Colorado from a lifetime of living in New York, so I felt at home with these guys."

Her visual narrative picks up where the official story blurs, and continues a tale about art, ethics, physiology and humanity.

"I saw the bones and the skulls that formed hearts and birds and beautiful shapes. Visually, I was struck by how very different they (the skulls) are from one to the next. They're as unique as our faces. They were more than interesting; they were compelling," said Modica, who wanted to make sure she didn't lose sight of the great loss of human life recorded with her lens. "It was fundamental to the meaning of the work that I have an intellectual understanding that I was dealing with humans, that these people had lives."

She considers the work a tribute to society's abandoned, as well as a window to a shameful time of anonymous institutionalization when the nation was struggling, and failing, to deal with its mentally ill.

"Some of the individuals were put in what was then called an insane asylum, where today they would be mainstreamed into society and schools. It's an interesting ethical and historical question," she said.

And one that should not be forgotten.

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Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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