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A Very Special Photographer, and Some Thoughts on Abandoned Spaces

In my recent post about noticing little details in the world around me, I mentioned that E and I had recently attended a flea market in New Jersey. At that market we encountered a guy who was selling dozens of photos, all taken in abandoned buildings — houses, factories, hotels, hospitals, power plants. All abandoned, all super-evocative. “Did you take all these photos?” I asked him. “Yes,” he replied.

The photographer’s name is Steven Bley. He also does portraits and wedding photography, but abandoned spaces are clearly his favorite thing. He’s hardly the first to find fertile photographic ground in derelict buildings (I’ve dabbled in it myself at various points), but he has an unusually good eye and a great sense of composition. I’ve looked at a lot of this type of stuff over the years, and Bley’s work is definitely a cut above. I ended up spending a lot of time flipping through the prints he was selling at the flea market.

I could easily have bought a dozen or more of Bley’s photos, but I limited myself to two. The first is this shot of a battered mannequin’s head, which he said was from a wax museum warehouse in Maryland:

I put this one in an old frame I had lying around.

Isn’t that great? It feels like it has so many stories to tell. And so does the other print I bought, which is from an abandoned hotel in upstate New York:

I haven’t yet framed this one.

Oh man — the angled ceiling, the light, the phone on the bed, the chair in the corner. It’s almost too perfect. I asked Bley if he stages his shots, and he said no — he prefers to photograph things as he finds them.

Bley told me his day job is working in IT, and he does the photography on the side. He strikes me as someone who deserves more attention. Definitely check out his website and Facebook page.

Meanwhile: Why do some of us find abandoned buildings so compelling? I’ve asked myself that question quite a bit over the years. Part of it, certainly, is that such spaces feel like de facto time capsules, documenting the story (or at least part of the story) of a family, a business, a community. There’s something very intimate about being inside such a place.

And there’s where things can get tricky, because an abandoned space is usually, almost by definition, the site of some sort of failure, sadness, or death. That’s part of why such places are so evocative in the first place — there’s that sense of of pathos, of tragedy. And when you’re getting intimate with someone else’s tragedy, that can easily become just cheap voyeurism (which is why photographing such places is sometimes referred to as ruin porn). So when I’m in such a place, or looking at photos like Bley’s, I try make a conscious effort to think about the people involved — the people who built the building, the people lived or worked in the building, the community around it.

Still, while I try to be as respectful as possible in such places, I’ve often wondered why I take such pleasure in exploring these decaying monuments to other people’s sadness. What does that say about me? If anyone else enjoys abandoned spaces, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

 
  
 
Comments (20)

    I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned places as well. It’s interesting how somewhere that was once a destination can become so undesired.

    If you can see past the name, this subreddit I’ve followed for years has some great abandoned content: link

    Some of my favorites in the NY area are:
    -Bennett College in Millbrook, NY
    -Catskill Game Farm
    -The Nevele Ski Resort in the Catskills

    I feel it’s the “what’s the story behind” xyz that drives you – whether it’s uniforms or cans or keychains or abandoned buildings. It’s curiosity of the moment or the people or the thought. It is intriguing to know the story.

    Really incredible photos. The phone on the bed, with the handset off the cradle, is indeed the capper. Sad and gorgeous all at once.

    BTW — hard as it is seeing you step away from Uni-Watch, I enjoy stuff like this at least as much. I’m so excited to see what’s coming from you, and where Phil takes Uni-Watch.

    I imagine the hotel room might have been for the help. Some seasonal resorts had rooms on the top floor for employees.

    There was a great series that ran on Vice TV called “Abandoned”. A skater guy Rick McCrank is the host. I’ve watched the one season 3 times through. It’s so good and the music choices really elevate the filmography too. It’s not streaming anywhere for free but it is for sure worth just purchasing the whole season on one of your streaming platforms.

    Paul, a coworker of mine reads your blog and sent me the link. Very kind of you to write up this article about my work, I’m flattered.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    It’s a neat coincidence that I saw this post a few hours after this one:

    link

    I definitely share your interest, Paul, in the wonder of ‘abandoned’ objects and places. It’s so interesting to imagine the stories that may have led to something or some place being ‘abandoned,’ as well as how the space or object may have been used in its day.

    I grew up about a mile from this site:

    link

    …which was still standing the last time I was there.

    Mental ‘hospitals’ like this are interesting to think about. On the one hand, so much sadness and misery were wrought there. On the other, people were going about their lives the best they could, both patients and staff. But I like seeing a snapshot of how people lived decades (or centuries) ago, because I think it brings a perspective to our own lives, for better or for worse.

    The times I’ve gone into abandoned places to photograph them, I’ve gotten some of my favorite, most frameable pictures. For some reason, I just like the idea of a place that once was thriving is still standing, albeit in a worn and dilapidated state. In a way, it’s almost like it’s returning to nature.

    One of my all-time favorite photos was one I took in the Asbury Park Casino in 2003, way before the boardwalk became gentrified and they blocked off access to the casino interior: link

    Love these teasers of what might be similar to your post-UW writing, Paul. My guess is that you’re curious about human beings, and part of human nature (at least to me) is wondering how other people live(d) and understanding / filling in the gaps when we see things like this.

    Another fantastic post — your “off-uni” articles are some of my favorite. I love stuff like this. In fact, there is a series on Discovery called “Mysteries of the Abandoned,” (link) which takes some deep dives into some pretty amazing places. Highly recommended.

    I love old asylums (asyla?) and hotels because of their grandness and antique architecture. I think it is because I saw “Rebecca” at an early age, and fell in love with Manderley.

    I went through a phase of being kind of obsessed with photographing abandoned places. Part of it is there’s a quiet lingering beauty, as Steven has clearly captured. Part of it is the sort of thrill/fear of being somewhere you’re not supposed to be, especially when that place is cloaked in “failure, sadness or death.” When I was shooting at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and an MP pulled up beside me and told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t welcome there, it was a little scary and a little exciting, but it was also kind of a relief to have to leave.

    Also, there are often stories you just can’t make sense of – years ago I was at an abandoned oil refinery in Ventura, CA and stumbled across a tattered old stuffed animal. What on Earth was a stuffed animal doing in the middle of an oil refinery?

    As others have already said, I think the curiosity about the story behind the overlooked details, and the appreciation of the beauty in those details, is what you find appealing.

    Since I was a kid I’ve had a visceral reaction to being alone in an empty place that is meant to be filled, like a church or gymnasium. That is a cousin to what you feel.

    For me, exploring an abandoned place is like finding a secret piece of history that few know or talk about. It makes me feel like an archaeologist finding something new.

    There’s an instagram account called “Decaying Midwest” that may interest you, if you’re not already aware of it.

    The web site and FB handle “Abandoned Kansai” cover abandoned sites in Japan. The author is a German living there as an expat, and besides his photos he has some closely observed views on how abandoned sites should be treated, unwritten rules about not exactly identifying sites (due to vandalism risk), and the huge shifts in Japanese history that result in abandonment (the bubble economy, the decline of mining and mining towns, rural depopulation). He is not there just for the ruin porn.

    I’m the opposite, I think. I kinda feel creeped out in abandoned buildings like this. Like you, I don’t know why that is.

    I’ve always loved the sub-genre of abandoned commercial properties (everything from malls to office buildings to arenas) because of the: 1) nostalgia; and 2) the reminder that even the grandest, most expensive enterprises have a shelf life. I don’t find abandoned living spaces or even places like schools or hospitals quite as interesting, perhaps because of the sadness you mention.

    Maybe, it’s related, but I’m also fascinated by things that used to be something else (like grocery stores that become other grocery stores or a million things that used to be a Pizza Hut — h/t link). Maybe has something to do with losing what you can never get back.

    As you mentioned, there are a ton of good photographers in this space. I just want to shout out Abandoned Florida: link

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