People have asked me so many times in the last few years why I am so attracted to seeking out and photographic abandoned places. That's a hard question to answer. I think the last time I went to an abandoned place was when I brought Emile with me to two really insane houses around here, and it was pretty obvious people just up and left, seemingly without a trace. So that was about 7 months ago. The last time I explored anyplace alone was months before that, so probably more than a year ago, and that seemed crazy to me. Thinking about that recently, I realized how much I missed the entire ritual of going exploring by myself. I used to do it often when I first started with this little obsession, and yes it is fun to go with other people sometimes when I am organized and prepared for that, but I like being able to have the freedom and to feel the strength that goes along with going on solo adventures too. And okay, so maybe I missed the adrenaline rush part too, but I had to check to see if all of that was still there after this last year.
So what is the ritual for me? It is part preparation and part spontaneity, which seems like a paradox, but I guess it's a big part of what makes this exploring stuff fun for me. I like the challenges.
First is the challenge of figuring out where to go. I usually don't like to go back to the same place twice unless it is some sort of scouting trip for a place to be used for a shoot location because I feel like that is pressing my luck when it comes to exploring, The places I use for shoot locations are buildings or houses that I think to be safe (as safe as can be) due to bringing models there, staying for a longer amount of time, and safety with the structure as well. When I first started I was like an excited little kid and would bulldoze through places without thinking about safety or having a specific plan. That's changed a lot though. "Where to go" also means finding actual addresses. That can be tough for lots of people, but if you keep your eyes open, you'll find what you're looking for. It also helps to have your own addresses so that you can trade with other explorers, like on Instagram, where I have met some good exploring friends. Tip: don't just ask where you can go without having a place for someone in return, because good luck with that. People who explore often don't like to give away locations for many reasons. Usually I can string a few locations and stops together, and then I also usually pin a few new ones on my GoogleMap so I know where to return sometime in the future.
Another part of the ritual for me is getting to just take off after plugging an address into my WAZE app, and turning on some nerdy podcasts. I have to get started early, be prepared with my clothes and supplies, have to have some bulletproof coffee, and must have some podcasts and music ready to go because I'm usually not sure how much time it will take or where I will eventually end up. Sunday I learned a lot about The Nubian Nation on the "Cults" Podcast, about "Peering Deeper into Space" and "Confronting Stigma" on the TED Radio Hour, why I shouldn't mess with Harriet Tubman on Retropod, and many episodes of Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History. Love Malcom Gladwell, by the way. I know I'm a geek. Check it out, fellow nerds.
. . . Don't Mess with Harriet Tubman.
Anyway, I headed out last Sunday alone for probably the first time in a year or more. I drove into the middle of nowhere, Illinois to three locations I was lucky enough to obtain, and started the exploring. I parked and ran on dirt roads, went through a window and promptly stuck my leg through the floor right at my first stop, and eventually found myself in two great houses that were like traveling back in time. I always look for information about the people who lived in and left these places and figured out that the last owners of the first house left sometime in the early 1970's, and the latest date I found in house two was 1962 on a calendar left hanging. Pretty amazing. I walk through these places and it's sad but beautiful. It leaves me wondering what happened to the people who lived in these places or worked in them, because I have also been in factories and hospitals where records, files, books, and employee work gear has been left behind. And that's the other contridiction: what is beautiful is also sometimes sad. People wonder how someone or a whole group of people could up and leave a place, but obviously they can because there are hundreds of places out there where there is evidence of this. Whether things are left behind out of desperation or even death, it is interesting but sad to find these things, especially when they have been sitting around being eaten by moths, possums, raccoons, and other animals for decades.
I guess the parallels between us and abandoned places also intrigue me. Everything decays and ultimately disintegrates and disappears; there is a life cycle for everything. Everyone feels abandoned at some point, unless he or she is super lucky. Sometimes the crazy debris seen in the places parallels the ways we feel inside. And sometimes the crazy debris can look absolutely beautiful in the light, or in the way that it is sitting, just like a person can. And I guess most interesting to me is the history that links the places to people. I love to research the places I find, and I have found a LOT of information about where I have been and the people who have lived and worked in the places. It's really not that hard to find information if you are resourceful and think a little bit outside of the box. I have literally found amazing historical artifacts in the homes and buildings, and I have also found living relatives who are willing to communicate about what is left behind - even 90 year olds now living in California instead of McHenry County. It can be pretty amazing.
So the history behind the places is probably the main reason why I continue with this obsession I should have seen coming even when a kid. I often found myself in places I probably shouldn't have been, looking through things: barns, houses, boathouses, wherever I ended up. The difference between then and now is that I do have a reason to research, and to me, that is pretty insane but exciting. You can see the final result of a little bit of my "research" that is now really research around next Christmas. :) Thank you so much to Chehalis Hegner-Ganson, Michael Ervin, and Dave Devinger for helping me with that!
When I started exploring a few years ago as an adult, I was obsessed from the start because of the amazing house I first came upon and the things I found in it.
When I went back out for the first time in a long time again last weekend, I was lucky enough to stumble upon two other amazing places and now have six more to visit because of keeping my eyes open while driving around on the dirt roads where I found myself for hours.
Those are some of the reasons why I love to look for and photograph abandoned places and the things found inside of them and why I also like to include them in much of my work.
Some more from Sunday:
Can't wait to get to where I'm planning on going next.