I spent the better part of June in St. Louis, Missouri, for my father’s memorial service and family and friend reunions. In between all the events, I braved the intense high heat and humidity, and went out to shoot as many abandoned and historic places as I could safely find and access. Growing up in southern Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis (the so-called Riverbend region), I have fond memories of the once-humming factories and rich architectural gems that defined St. Louis. Sadly, most of the factories that sustained the working class community have long been shuttered, yet their beautiful decaying shells remain.
Abandoned buildings and the discarded objects left behind, to me, make the most compelling, atmospheric and emotionally moving photographic subjects. Derelict buildings intrigue me as they are tossed to the wind, ghosts, and the brutal forces of nature. Upon entering these abandoned places, there seems to be a feeling or resonant imprint of lives left behind with the passage of time. My images attempt to convey stories of time and place filled with emotion and historic significance.
When entering derelict structures, I imagine myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in the future – a post-apocalyptic vision. In my photographs, I attempt to capture a sense of lives that once existed. Photography is a vehicle that allows me to hold on to some of this ephemeral state. My urban decay photographic art is an attempt to explore the impermanence of life through detritus. The narrative within an image is more powerful than the written word and is how I convey emotions.
The first shot at the top is of an abandoned factory in a historic St. Louis Italian neighborhood affectionately known as “The Hill.” The Hill still maintains the look and feel of old St. Louis, and is filled with wonderful restaurants, bars, beautiful architecture and abandoned factories in days of yore. The second shot (above) is of the old abandoned Lever Soap factory in Pagedale. As I am a huge fan of the AMC TV series The Walking Dead, I processed this image to give it the look and feel of the show.
The above image is of the famous Old Chain of Rocks Bridge that connects St. Louis, Missouri, to Madison County, Illinois, over the Mississippi River. Although it can no longer be driven on, you can hike across the bridge between the two states. This bridge used to be part of the original historic Route 66 as you can see from the signage. I grew up near here and have fond memories of driving across the river on the old bridge. A word of caution though to potential visitors: do not walk on the bridge alone at any time, and do so in daylight only. Sadly, several assaults have been perpetrated on unsuspecting visitors.
The photograph above was taken in the charming, historic Mississippi River town of Kimmswick, Missouri, just south of St. Louis. In Kimmswick you step back in time as you wander about the small village chock full of antique shops, historic estates, the Anheuser Museum and Estate, quaint shops and restaurants, old log cabin homes, and much more. I received a tip from the very nice owner of the local Blue Owl Restaurant, who told me to head out on a remote road where I would find a crumbling old stone wall and archway surrounding what once was an estate in the forest. The creepy faces embedded in the crumbling stone are striking.
The above image was taken at an old abandoned cement factory near the Mississippi River in North St. Louis. The two trucks in the image are owned by a local company that has operations nearby, and uses the abandoned property for storing vehicles. I titled the image “Waiting for Godot” even though the Beckett play title is open to interpretation. Is it hope or despair? Whatever one thinks, the meaning of time and waiting for something, being saved or resurrected, conveys the melancholy of abandoned and derelict places.
The photograph above was taken at an old flour mill still in operation in Alton, Illinois, located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Madison County, not far from where I grew up. The mill is owned by ConAgra Foods. Alton is a very historic town with beautiful residential and commercial architecture and old factories, famous for its limestone bluffs along the Great River Road just north of the city. The town is considered part of the St. Louis Metro area. Founded in 1837, Alton was the site of the final debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Alton is considered one of the most haunted cities in America and is home to the creepy McPike Mansion.
The final photograph above was another taken in Kimmswick, Missouri, just 25 miles south of St. Louis. Kimmswick has Missouri’s highest number of locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This shot was taken inside the Burgess-How House and Museum, a log home built in the 1840s. It has been beautifully restored and tours are given by the wonderful people of the Kimmswick Historical Society.
I will post more images as I get them processed, along with the ton of images I still have to work up from my May Death Valley excursion. If you are interested in urban exploration (urbex) photography, I highly recommend a new book (2015) by well-known San Francisco Bay area photographer and UE Todd Sipes, Urban Exploration Photography: A Guide to Creating and Editing Images of Abandoned Places. This superb book not only offers great tips on how to photograph abandoned locations, but has excellent post-processing tutorials.
Updated Monday, August 4, 2014
During a recent excursion to Death Valley National Park with a photographer friend, I visited the virtual ghost town of Ballarat, California, on the way home. I have long-since wanted to explore this desolate town in the Mojave Desert and, with a massive storm brewing over the Panamint Range, it made for a perfect photographic opportunity. Located just outside Death Valley National Park, Ballarat now has a sole resident – Rocky Novak, who operates the general store – and his two dogs. The town is off Highway 178 (Trona Wildrose Road), not far from the small desert town of Trona, famous for the Trona Pinnacles. There are still some ruins remaining, including decayed living quarters, a jailhouse and morgue, a cemetery, and a truck that belonged to Bobby Beausoleil, a member of the infamous Charles Manson Family, who were arrested near the town after the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders.
In the 1960s, Charles Manson and the “Manson Family” of killers moved into a ranch near Ballarat (Barker Ranch in the Panamint Range), and left graffiti and an old truck in the town, a very pertinent fact that I discovered only after departing Ballarat. I simply wanted to kick myself for not going inside the truck; however, I did not know at the time whether the truck was private property and we needed to return home after days in the hot desert. Good sources confirm that the truck belonged to Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, who tried to escape after the Barker Ranch hideout was invaded by lawmen. Beausoleil furiously drove the rickety old truck down the rugged mountains on the washboard roads, ending up in Ballarat when the truck finally broke down.
Ballarat was founded in 1896 as a supply point for the mines in the canyons of the Panamint Range. A quarter-mile to the south is Post Office Springs, a reliable water source used since the 1850s by prospectors and desert wanderers. George Riggins, a young immigrant from Australia, gave Ballarat its name when he proposed it should be named for Ballarat, Victoria, in the heart of Australia’s gold country. In its heyday—from 1897 to 1905—Ballarat had 400 to 500 residents. It hosted seven saloons, three hotels, a Wells Fargo station, post office, school, a jail and morgue, but no churches. Ballarat was a place for miners and prospectors in the area to resupply and relax.
The town began its decline when the Ratcliff Mine, in Pleasant Canyon east of town, suspended operations. Other mines nearby also began to play out, and in 1917 the post office closed and all that remained were a few diehard prospectors and desert rats. The 1969 movie Easy Rider has a scene filmed in Ballarat; after arriving in the town, Peter Fonda’s character, Wyatt, removes his Rolex watch and throws it away before he and Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy, head east on their motorcycles towards New Orleans.
Ballarat is a great place for photographers who love to shoot urbex/rurex and for those into paranormal encounters. The images were taken with my Nikon D800; I will add more photos to this post as they are processed. Meanwhile, you can check my most recent images on my Flickr site.