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A Haunting Look at Human Beings

An image from Human Being by Andrea Modica. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.
An image from Human Being by Andrea Modica. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

In 1993, prison inmates breaking ground for a new hospital wing at the Colorado Mental Health Institute made a gruesome discovery: the skeletons of more than 100 people buried in a mass grave at least a century before. The bodies, most of them men in their 40s and presumed to have been patients, were never claimed and their deaths were unrecorded.

Upon reading a newspaper story about the discovery, Andrea Modica, a professor of photography in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, became fascinated with the story and obtained permission to photograph the skeletal remains, which were undergoing study at Colorado College.

Modica was struck by the uniqueness and individuality of each skeleton and the human connection she felt to the people who used to inhabit them. Through her photographs, she attempts to honor their humanity, meanwhile raising important questions about how we treat those on the outskirts of society.

Entitled Human Being, Modica’s collection of 40 photographs, on loan from the Denver Art Museum, is currently on display at the art gallery at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora through May 23.

An image from Human Being by Andrea Modica. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

According to the exhibit’s curator, Simon Zalkind, “Although one might see them as a series of uninflected images of objects arranged in an arbitrary sequence and devoid of personal commentary, the contemplative imagination that Modica brings to these bones, her probing of the multiplicity of the ‘texts’ inscribed on their surface provides us with a sense of the mystery and inexpressible depth of the human psyche.”

“These are not ‘remains’ – they are portraits,” said Zallkind.

In a review of the exhibition, Denver Post fine art critic Ray Mark Rinaldi said, “Human Being reinvents portrait photography in ways that are both revolutionary and gruesome…Modica’s photos are unsettling and straightforwardYet their humanity comes through, and in ways that connect them to the present. How did we treat these people? Not well, one imagines. How do we treat the mentally ill today? There’s no judgment here, though plenty for us to contemplate.” Read the full review here. Listen to an interview with Modica about the exhibit on Colorado Public Radio here.

Modica also produced a photo book of the series, which was published by Nazraeli Press.

An image from Human Being by Andrea Modica. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

Modica’s photographs have appeared in the pages of such preeminent publications as The New Yorker, Newsweek, Life Magazine, New York Times Magazine, Village Voice and Esquire. The winner of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Grant, her 1998 publication, “Treadwell,” is an acclaimed photographic collection of a fictitious rural upstate New York community which includes a forward written by Pulitzer Prize winner E. Annie Proulx. Her work has also been included in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, among others.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Modica should contact Alex McKechnie at ahm62@drexel.edu or 215.895.2705.

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