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:
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:
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.
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.