Finding sanguinity in America’s abandoned places

Wilkerson's abandoned store, Newkirk, NM, Route 66 USA. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Newkirk, New Mexico

Since discovering it last year, I’ve really been enjoying the blog of Leanne Cole, a fellow photographer who lives in Australia. A while ago, she began a series of posts, “Influencing Me”, about the artists who inspire her, and this has been great fun to read—it gives us insight into her work, which of course causes others to reflect upon their own.

Leanne’s series came around the same time I got to sit and listen to not one, but two people contemptuously deride me and my work as not just “living in the past” but actually being “stuck” there (you can tell, what with my cameras, computer, smartphone, mild TCM addiction and deep affection for the Lightning Bug app I’m pretty sure I’d never sleep again without). I also got into a conversation with someone about my liking to shoot abandoned places.

Leaving aside the painful mental dissonance we’re all bound to experience considering my photographing abandoned, crumbling buildings as they are while simultaneously living in the day when said things were new (perhaps I know The Doctor after all, but I’ll never tell), I once again felt the urge to try and explain why I shoot what I shoot and my mindset going into each and every photography journey (which, as I’ll bet Leanne can tell you, is more difficult than it sounds at the first). This topic of shooting forsaken places seemed like a decent place to begin.

Abandoned filling station, Route 66, Niangua, Missouri. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Sunset Provision

As a photographer—like any artist, though I consider myself a documentarian much, much more than an artist—I of course have a bit of choice in what I choose to shoot and how I shoot it. Health hurdles, my physical location, time, and tools of course have some influence on this, but even with these constraints, how I portray what I decide to photograph is, of course, entirely up to me.

Though I love photographing old things and places in general (this is why I can’t stay out of  Virginia for long), I’ll try to keep my focus on my shooting the places we’ve left behind.

Photographing forsaken places is something I simply enjoy; not only are the old buildings often picturesque, this sort of work is mentally stimulating to a

Abandoned Plymouth dealership, East Liverpool, Ohio, with vintage Plymouths inside. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Five Star
Abandoned Plymouth dealership, East Liverpool, Ohio.

degree surprising to those who don’t do it (aside from the “watch for snakes, dangerous people and falling walls, then don’t forget the tick check” sort of mental stimulation). I appreciate the workmanship, charm, and even artistry in the buildings, still evident despite decline; I wonder about the people who built the diner or home and about those who walked away for the very last time, knowing they’d never return; I ponder the place’s past success and the possibility that, under the right hand, it might be successful again. Also—indeed, perhaps because of all these mental meanderings of mine, or does the following inspire my passion for forgotten things?—history has always been one of my loves. Most of the books in our home library are history books and biographies, and my mother refuses to buy a book for me ever again. (Even a cookbook, which is disappointing.)

It’s pretty well known, too, that I style myself in dress & hair as closely approximating the 1940s and 1950s as I can, down to gloves and hats; over the years, my love for certain eras has apparently been wholly absorbed, because it’s obviously manifest in my lifestyle and sartorial taste. For whatever reason, I’ve an affinity for the past, and this is quite clear to everyone who meets me. Thus it only makes sense that old things and places from earlier times appeal to me so much and are sought out for me to photograph.

In addition to my general love for history and old things, there does seem to be a sort of preservationist instinct. Some of these places are very unlikely to ever come back to life, and could well be gone in a week, a month or a few years. Quite a few of the places I’ve photographed have since fallen to nature or

Silenced St. John's in Stotesbury—my best-selling print.

Silenced
St. John’s in Stotesbury—my best-selling print. Apparently all of you like abandoned places as well!

the hand of man: St. John’s Baptist in West Virginia, which collapsed in a storm just months after my visit; the Robert E. Lee Motel in Virginia, where Colonel Sanders ran one of his first restaurants, was razed far too quickly after I found myself held in its dangerously overgrown thrall. Other places I’ve photographed are probably not far from being lost; soon, my photos and those from other photographers will not only have documented these places during their final years, but be the only pieces of such places we’ll have left. It is important to many of us that we capture these places with our cameras, as they are, before they’re gone.

Moreover, when I look at a vacant shop or rotting motel with its paint peeling, windows broken, and scrub brush obscuring far too much, I wonder about those who this place a successful business, literally creating something out of nothing. Coming from a long line of entrepreneurs that ranges from Dad and both grandfathers to a near relative who ended up wearing heavy shoes at the bottom of the Detroit River during Prohibition (hey, he was running a business) probably predisposes me to think this way. We can look at what is, frankly, a dump, and see it gleaming with fresh paint and customers flowing in and out of the door, creating wealth and jobs and adding value to people’s lives.

The Robert E. Lee Motel in Abingdon, Virginia, is a great example of this: after stumbling across it on one of our road trips, both my husband and I were so enamoured of it, despite its truly rotten, dangerous state, that we talked quite seriously of

The Robert E. Lee

The Robert E. Lee Motel, Abingdon, Virginia

buying it to bring it back into business (after all, there’s a major NASCAR track nearby to draw customers from), and did so for well over a month. This would have been a “Money Pit”/”Funny Farm”-type debacle, I’ve no doubt—but we were genuinely excited about the prospect despite the huge amount of work that would have been involved in restoring the motel and running it as a business. Sadly, we hadn’t anywhere near the necessary capital at the time.

Six months after I photographed it, the Robert E. Lee was razed.

Ah, what could have been, at enormous cost or no!

All of these things race through my mind when I’m photographing old, decaying places, something I often can’t help but mention when posting to Flickr: the abandoned filling station that would make a darling bakery or coffee shop; the old cafe that could make a smashing revival or serve as a bridal store; and why couldn’t an old motel become instead a place where dozens of  local artisans each have their own little shop if there’s not enough business to support a hotel?

What A Way To End Up

What A Way To End Up
Greenbrier County, WV

Just as we’d have loved to save the Robert E. Lee Motel, I encourage others to see that these places are not just empty and abandoned or even “eyesores”: no! They are opportunities! They brim over with possibility, waiting to become something new.

As fallen, messy humans, can’t we identify with this on a personal level? I think the only other living thing on this earth that so strives to improve, to be better—to be the best—just to be the best, is the Thoroughbred racehorse. Whenever I ponder my affection for photographing weatherbeaten places, I think about that; I consider that we as humans are literally bound to failure, that we are destined to decay, and sadly, not nearly so attractively as an old general store or Moderne motel. That, too, I think attracts us to such places; this, too, is our own end. Decay. Worn. Dust. It’s a bit disconcerting that in a world so obsessed with health! health! health!, we have done all we can to hide and ignore what awaits every one of us: death. Maybe our attraction to desolation, to abandonment and decay is our own natural desire to balance things out.

Back to these places as businesses, past and future: As someone from a family of business-builders, I’m familiar with the literal blood, sweat, and tears that go into birthing and running a successful business, the long hours, and time away from family and missed moments—and no doubt sweat and tears were wrung from many of those who made the decision to walk away for good from the places I’ve photographed. I admire these unknown people; we’re the same breed, I

John's Modern Cabins, Route 66 Missouri, USA. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Time Slipped Away From Me
John’s Modern Cabins, Missouri Route 66

guess. In a way, taking photographs of what’s left of their life is a tribute to them, and to their hope made concrete (and neon, and brick, and glass, and stone, and tile) through hard work.

I think of those things I know well—the late nights, the thrilled customers, the tough decisions, the optimism, sometimes bull-headed tenacity, and drive—and I think they somehow stick with these places. Having toured many towns and buildings, I can’t help but think that the emotions experienced within walls stay with the place until it drops; I’ve been in homes that were actually happy, and I’ve been in homes that were downright menacing. There are memories a camera can’t capture—but I can try to evoke them for you, so that you, too, sense and feel what I did during my visit.

That probably explains my tack when photographing things like Wilkerson’s in New Mexico, John’s Modern Cabins in Missouri, St. John’s in West Virginia, and the numberless handsome abandoned storefronts I encountered while living in the Ohio Valley. Many a photographer will portray these scenes as grim and gritty—and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, I like much of this work, which speaks volumes about how they in particular see the place and what it says to them.

Still, though I’ve produced a few photos of that nature—there are times when it cannot be helped, and others where the melancholy is too thick (and sometimes I’m having a bit of fun anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, as indeed is the case with Menaced), for the most part,

John's Modern Cabins, Route 66 Missouri USA. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Menaced
John’s Modern Cabins

even my photographs of deserted places are, though realistic (being a documentarian, after all!), still…how do I put this…light in mood. Maybe the image itself is not light in colour, though I usually prefer to keep photos of such things vibrant, but no matter how dire the scene, I usually don’t aim at highlighting the gloomy aspects of these things. Since my mood when visiting and photographing

these places is curious and contemplative, despite my sadness at seeing them neglected and suspecting or knowing it hasn’t much longer to stand, I think my general good cheer comes through in my work.

This is not to say I’m a Pollyanna (though why being optimistic and having a cheerful disposition is such a bad thing in our world, I don’t know); I know that many of the places I photograph will, someday, only be remembered through such images; it will be the only way they exist at all. But even knowing this—perhaps because I know this—I want to portray these places as they stand today in the best light I can. The best light I can—that’s very important to me.

Abandoned 66 West Twin Drive-In, Route 66 Oklahoma, USA. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

66 West Twin

Moreover, all of these things I so love to see and photograph were born out of true hope and optimism—with plans for success, the ability to provide for one’s own family and live independently while providing a service or good for other people. Believe me, no one starts a business hoping to fail. No one starts a business hoping to tick off customers. Business owners know it’ll often be a long, hard slog, but in addition to that, we see the light of success, waiting to be grasped. Yes, the diner or motor court is crumbling now, but there is still a sort of pride in those walls, and if you stand beside them, you can feel it. Someone built this place, someone made their own American dream a success.

Besides, there’s one other reason I photograph them as they are, though you’re going to have to bear with me, because it sounds a bit odd (it is a bit odd). It is because I can see them as they were. When I stood in Glenrio or Texola, with the desolation quite clear to my eyes, I could see the glory days, too: in my mind’s eye, Glenrio’s cafe and motel were busy, with big land-cruiser sedans and gleaming coupes rolling down Route 66 to my right. Texola’s rotting row of shops was crisp and fresh, neatly-uniformed mechanics working on a few cars while tourists and residents drifted in and out of a small supermarket. I can’t explain this, and it very probably makes me crazy, but it’s true—though standing in and seeing the present, the past seems to rush over to me, superimposed over today, warming my heart, making me smile, leaving me wondering even more about those who built and lived in these towns before everyone left, the way a very, very good book leaves you yearning for more of the characters well after the last page has been read.

Perhaps I do live in the past after all; it’s always on my mind.

But since I think it makes my work all the better, don’t worry—it’s fine with me.

Texola, OK, Route 66 USA. All rights reserved.

On the job in Texola, Oklahoma!

If you’d like to see all of my abandoned places photography, click here. As always, if you see something you’d like that’s not in the shop, please send me an email!

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2 thoughts on “Finding sanguinity in America’s abandoned places

  1. I love old things, places, buildings for the same reasons. I wonder who owned it, lived there or worked there. It’s great that you are preserving history with your photographs. I have little hope for old buildings when I see them tear down 5 year old shopping malls and rebuilding a new one in the same place. Boggles my mind. Man, I really miss the Drive Ins too.

  2. Thanks Jen. Another very thoughtful post. Sadly, we live in a disposable society. When I visited Europe, I was enthralled with all the ancient buildings and the history surrounding them. We’ll never have that here because we’re always tearing things down to put up newer and shinier. We’re like that with people too. Grandma’s are disappearing because women don’t want wrinkles or gray hair. It’s a challenge to grow old with grace, whether a building or a person. Thanks for helping people see the beauty in abandoned places. They do indeed have a story to tell.

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