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.
As I have remarked in many a post, I am completely smitten with shooting abandoned and derelict structures, a photography genre known as ‘Urban Exploration’ or just plain Urbex. From abandoned factories and decaying mental institutions to shuttered hospitals and old ghost towns, these historic structures are very atmospheric and possess a highly palpable emotional energy. In my opinion, the best way to visualize what our civilization will look like hundreds of years from now is to explore our ruins today. Urban exploration has become all the rage these days, and while some explore these ruins simply to soak up the cool atmosphere, photographers revel in documenting what occurs when nature takes over.
As a person who utilizes the digital technique of HDR (high dynamic range) photography, I am able to combine multiple exposures of the same scene – some overexposed, some normal as metered, and some underexposed – that are then combined into one large digital file and processed using special software. This results in great detail throughout the entire image, from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights, with an unmatched tonal range and color gamut, something never before possible when shooting film (analog). The classic dilemma of whether to expose for the highlights or shadows is no longer an issue. Some people remark that the end result looks three-dimensional, and with that I concur.
In recent months I have been exploring the area in and around an abandoned sugar mill here on the California Central Coast in a long-since defunct ghost town named Betteravia, the French word for sugar beet roots. Betteravia, located just west of Santa Maria in Northern Santa Barbara County, was a sugar mill company town founded on the former Rancho Punta de Laguna around the turn of the 20th Century that existed for nearly ninety years in various forms. In its heyday, Betteravia supported a population of 350 residents, most of whom were employed by the Union Sugar Company (now part of Sara Lee Corporation).
The community once consisted of 65 cottages, a hotel, church, schoolhouse, post office, amusement hall, general store, gasoline station, and a fire department, which were either moved or razed in the 1960s. The sugar mill extracted sucrose from sugar beets, a tuber from which thirty percent of the world’s sugar is derived, as opposed to sugar cane.
In 1897, the Union Sugar Mill was completed at Betteravia and, in 1899, the Southern Pacific Railway completed its branch from Guadalupe to Betteravia to service the mill. In 1950, the Union Sugar Company decided it no longer wanted to remain in the renting business and gave notice to all residents to evacuate. The homes were sold for an average of $50 each. Most of the homes were bought by the renters and moved to other locations, while some were purchased by other individuals.
In 1986, Holly Sugar (Imperial Holly) purchased Union Sugar, taking over the operations at Betteravia. On March 8, 1988, the sugar refinery plant suffered a major dust explosion and fire (a common occurrence in sugar processing) which resulted in the severe injury of eight employees, seven of whom were critically hurt. Following the closure of the Imperial Holly sugar plant in 1993, Betteravia became a ghost town with many vacant and demolished buildings, thereby ending the so-called beet train era.
In 1997, the sugar mill was demolished; however, the site still contains two large, hermetically sealed silos, a decrepit but partially intact refinery building, and a towering furnace stack. These structures make excellent fodder for architectural and urbex photography. In this post, I am focusing on the exterior of the silos, refinery building, and an odd looking tower covered with graffiti. It reminds me of the work of famed Dutch artist M.C. Escher.
I named one of the tall tower images Tower of Babel (after the graffiti – see above image), and another Escher’s Tower. For photographs of the interior and other vantage points, please visit my main gallery page and see my prior post Little House of Horrors. I will add another post with more images in the near future.