Photographers find 'living history' in abandoned buildings
by Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org
One summer night, Peter Gnas was visiting a southern Wisconsin motel. It was dark and deserted -- except for the bats. As Gnas tells it, "There were so many bats, it was like a horror movie. They were flying all about and landing and hopping on the ground. It was all very strange and a bit disturbing."
Gnas went to this eerie location not to rent a room, but to take pictures. The Milwaukee-area photographer has a strong interest in capturing abandoned buildings on film; and the motel in question has sat vacant for years. In fact, for the sake of a good photo, Gnas has braved everything from wild animals (those bats, "barns filled with rats, houses containing raccoons and bees everywhere") to structural hazards ("rotting and rusty support beams, holes in the floor, basements filled with water") to the sometimes brutal Wisconsin weather. He even packs a respirator for occasions when he encounters potentially toxic particulates.
Because Gnas has another job by day, he often spends his nights on shoots. The colored strobes Gnas uses to illuminate his subjects at night give his images a creepy, otherworldly look, according to commenters on his Web pages. He has a set of these strobe-lit photos posted online that he calls "The Color of Abandonment."
PortalWisconsin.org staff learned of Gnas' online work, along with the work of two other "modern ruins" photographers, at the Portal Wisconsin Flickr photography pool. Through the online photo sharing service Flickr.com, Wisconsin photographers can submit their regionally-themed work for the chance to have it featured on PortalWisconsin.org's homepage. Gnas and Fox Valley residents Steven Brett Stoddart and Al Mullen, all of whom have submitted striking evidence of their explorations, communicated with us recently through a series of email messages.
Abandonment as artistic inspiration
Appleton-based freelance photographer Steven Brett Stoddart focuses on fine art, architectural, commercial and events photography. He tells PortalWisconsin.org that the thrill of exploring structures most people would avoid, along with a desire to create a pictorial record of rapidly vanishing places, fuels his passion for photographing modern day ruins.
But according to Stoddart, his creative agenda has evolved over time, shifting from a photojournalistic approach to a more artistic one: "I still feel the need to document what I see, but at the same time my goal is to create a piece of art that could hang on my wall."
Before he ever aimed a camera lens at the interiors of deserted buildings, Stoddart often sought out windows and doorways as subjects -- always a good source for color, lines and texture, he says. "From there I was starting to notice more and more houses, farms, buildings and factories that were wide open and empty for the most part. Curiosity started to get the better of me, and I eventually ventured up and into them," he explains.
For Stoddart, these all but forgotten time and weather-worn places offer a photographer richer, more provocative subject matter. "The older the house, the more interesting the construction. Lathe and plaster is an art form itself, a trade practically non-existent today. As the plaster falls, it reveals the horizontal lathes, like ribs being exposed under missing skin and muscle," he explains.
Working primarily with a hand-held camera and relying on available light compel Stoddart to plan each shot with care. He has a checklist of sorts of shots he typically takes that includes various perspectives and angles of the exterior, and staircases, and of course, doors and windows from the interior. "I just can't get enough of hanging bare light bulbs and electrical sockets," he adds.
Crumbling buildings as 'living museums'
Deserted buildings have fascinated Al Mullen of Menasha since childhood. "I was lucky enough to grow up by two places within a bike ride of my house," he says. He and Stoddart often explore the countryside together to scout sites.
Mullen calls photography a hobby but says his day job in landscape maintenance "takes me to some out of the way places," where rural ruins are often found.
Before photographing a site, Mullen likes to have some basic information about its previous owners to help him better identify with the property. On his well-maintained Flickr photo stream, Mullen posts sets of farmstead photos, labeled when possible by previous owners' names. Sometimes he finds sites completely emptied of personal evidence, but often former residents leave behind clues, including mailboxes, correspondence and other personal items. "I have even found bank records with names on them," he adds.
Digital cameras allow photographers to capture more images for less expense, so Mullen advises ruins explorers to take multiple shots of a subject to ensure better results. His experiences have made him sensitive to the fragility of the sites, and he takes pains to protect them from vandals. "These places should be left as living museums for future photographers to enjoy," he says.
Collectively, Gnas, Stoddart and Mullen have photographed farmsteads and abandoned vehicles, deserted factories, motels, old school houses, filling stations, churches and even an out-of-business mini-golf park. All three say they find the sites by word of mouth and on the Internet. Mostly, though, it's the trained eye of the photographer that leads them to a shoot; they know where to explore, and they spot what others tend to overlook.
In the country, that means shifting into low gear and meandering the back roads. "Often new highways have cut off access to older places, thus hastening the decline," says Stoddart. Seasonal changes can obscure a location, too. Sometimes returning to the same place in winter can yield better results than in summer, when a site might become overgrown with foliage.
For those interested in pursuing the photography of modern ruins, there are rules. Above all, the three men insist on leaving a site as they found it. Or "take only pictures, leave only footprints," as Stoddart puts it. "Some of these places, you find some interesting stuff, stuff that would make antique dealers green with envy. But I will not take it, no matter what. That's just not me," he adds.
And for those who would prefer enjoying modern ruins photography from the comfort of their home offices, Gnas, Stoddart and Mullen have posted extensive collections of their work online. The images in this article are linked to each photographers' photostreams, where viewers can find descriptions of the sites and the shoots.