Toxic mold. Asbestos. Collapsed walls. Darkness. These are just some of the hazards encountered by photographers and explorers who are drawn to deserted, neglected and derelict places. From abandoned asylums to overgrown ruins, photographing in these perilous places is not for the faint of heart. But is it for the “fairer sex”?
I recently had the chance to interview a group of female explorer/photographers who are just as tough, just as talented and just as dedicated as any black-clad, army boot wearing, particle respiratored male explorer. I asked what drew them to this work and whether they felt women faced challenges their male counterparts did not face. I was also interested to learn if they thought women brought a distinct, or more feminized sensibility to this type of photography. The women were candid in their responses, graciously sharing their stories. While each woman has a unique voice, vision and perspective, what quickly emerges is the indisputable fact that women in urbex are unintimidated, unafraid, and unwilling to play by anyone else’s rules.
As a professional wedding photographer, Shannon Valera spends much of her time photographing glowing brides and nervous grooms. When she is not posing families for formal portraits, you might find Shannon in decidedly darker corners, indulging her passion for “old, run down, dangerous places.” Shannon admits most people find it weird that she would be drawn to these kinds of places. She says, “I think there are fewer woman drawn to this because morally and socially we’re not supposed to do this. It’s more socially acceptable for men to enjoy it. Many of my friends think I’m crazy and don’t see why I do it, but I love shocking people with what I do.”
Growing up in Millbrook, NY, Shannon was captivated from an early age by the horror-movie charm of Halcyon Hall at Bennett College. She’s photographed that crumbling structure many times, but for her senior thesis in photography at the College of New Rochelle, she branched out, shooting Catskills resorts, camps, ruins and other undiscovered places throughout New York. She commented, “This has become a real passion of mine. I find myself always searching for new places.”
When out exploring, Shannon looks for places where the “beauty is still intact and a moment in history is frozen in time.” Learning that her grandfather once had a time share at Grossinger’s explains why Shannon has her sights set on visiting the dilapidated Liberty NY resort. “It is so intriguing to look at family pictures from those days and compare them to what it looks like now.” But while Shannon is drawn to places with personal or historical significance and believes photography is the best way to record the lifecycle of these places, she is also aware of the risks. “As a woman I do sometimes feel uneasy. I try to always have someone with me to be on the safe side.”
When asked whether she feels women have a different point of view from male explorers, she states, “I feel everyone has a different point of view. We all walk in knowing what we want to capture. But I do feel women are more drawn to detail while men try to capture the whole landscape.”
To see more of Shannon’s work, visit Turquoise Breeze Photography.
Laura Gonzalez Ninjuhtrixx
With her long auburn hair, skintight jeans and day-glo pink particle respirator, Laura Gonzalez Ninjuhtrixx would hardly get lost in a crowd, especially a crowd of urbex photographers. But a crowd is the last place you’ll find this native New Yorker. “Growing up, I was a loner,” states Ninjuhtrixx. “I enjoyed sticking to myself. I’d escape to quiet and empty places to get away from the turmoil.”
Armed in those days with a “24 pic single use camera” and later a point-and-shoot, Ninjuhtrixx found herself drawn to places that she describes as “not very popular.” A favorite spot was the LIRR tracks behind her house. “I’d sit there for hours watching the trains go by. These days, I always take the tracks instead of the streets.” She states this is how you find the “hidden little spots most people don’t know about.” From her early experiences walking the rails, Ninjuhtrixx branched out into exploring abandoned houses in the neighborhood. She often spent the night at a particular place, adopting it as a second home. One day she returned to find it trashed. She states, “I was really young so I didn’t understand the whole ‘scrapping’ concept, but I took it as a personal insult.” Looking for other places to find solitude led Ninjuhtrixx to nearby state hospitals: Kings Park, Pilgrim State Hospital, Central Islip State Hospital and Edgewood State Hospital. “I grew up in the epicenter of state hospitals,” she tells us. Lucky girl.
When asked if she has a favorite place, Ninjuhtrixx states, “I find a new favorite place for a week then I move on to something else. I enjoy industrial waterfronts. You hear the sounds of wildlife and cars rushing by. Factories falling apart, docks rotting, rust forming, trash built up from years of neglect… You look into the water that has been stripped of all its resources, abused and abandoned and it invokes a certain sadness – like ‘no matter what you do to me Im still going to be here and Im still going to flow as fast as I can.”
When Ninjuhtrixx speaks of a place’s resilience and stubborn refusal to die, she knows from where she speaks. She has seen her share of places that have surrendered to the forces of time and neglect. She is also a student of this kind of gritty urban photography, citing Jacob Riis as an influence. She states “He lived in poverty when he first came to NY, then went on to become a reporter. He never forgot the struggles he experienced.”
Ninjuhtrixx describes some of the struggles she faces as a women in urbex: “Exploring is a manly thing to do. It is more socially acceptable thing to do for men where it’s been instilled in women to stay clean, don’t play in dirt, stuff like that. I rarely if ever come across female explorers when I’m out and about. Safety is a big factor. It is a million times harder for a woman to explore as we’re open to more risks and dangers.” She continues, “A guy walks down the street and finds an amazing place. He looks around – ‘OK, good,” – and he’s in. Fun times. Girl finds the same place and thinks, ‘Am I dressed too provocative? Do I have something I can use to protect myself? Are there any strange guys lurking around? A woman has to be that much more careful. I enjoy going to these places alone, but nine times out of ten I bring a male friend. “
When asked whether she has a different perspective than men she states, “People are people. Some people see things one way, some another.” We’re pretty sure no one else sees exactly what Ninjuhtrixx sees.
To see more of her work, visit Pix by Ninjuhtrix
Have you ever wondered who cleans and repairs old gravestones? OK, maybe not, but this willingness to do what others won’t and go where few dare is a defining characteristic of photographer/veterinary assistant/gravestone-cleaner Tina Pabst.
Tina describes her first “explore” this way: “I can recall being six years old and going into an abandoned toy factory in back of our house in a small town in the Catskills. It was a huge wooden structure and so neat inside! From that time on, anything empty and abandoned appealed to me.”
These days, Tina can be found exploring with the Forsaken Photography team, a collective of six photographers who share a singular passion for safely and smartly capturing abandoned locations in the Hudson Valley. Tina tells us her favorite location is Middletown Psychiatric Center (formerly the Middletown Homeopathic Hospital). Like many other photographers, this place has a personal significance and resonance for Tina. “The fact that my grandfather’s brother was a resident there from 1900 until his death in 1920 just adds to my interest.” She worries, as we all do, that these fragile buildings will be demolished, leaving nothing but memories.
When it comes to “bucket list” explores, Tina tells us she would love to photograph the old part of Sing Sing. She explains, “I feel drawn to places where strong emotions were expressed – insane asylums, hospitals, orphanages and churches.” Tina, like virtually every photographer who is willing to wander dank hallways and crawl over broken glass to get the shot, is strongly attached to these “forsaken” buildings for reasons both complex and simple. When it comes to a “male advantage” she says, “Perhaps men are a bit stronger and better able to navigate some places, but women can be more agile.” She acknowledges it takes “a certain amount of guts, bravery and thrill-seeking or adventurous spirit [to explore abandoned places] since it can be dangerous.”
As for gender differences, Tina believes “men may envision things being done in an old building, like maintaining and repairing equipment, while women think of the more personal aspects – how a family lived and how it survived the hard times.”
Tina hopes to make presentations of her work to local historical societies with the aim of making people “more aware of our vanishing history. Once something is gone, it’s gone. Many of these old buildings are architectural masterpieces. If I could, I would save them all.” Till then, Tina can be found doing her part, one exposure at a time.
Avid hiker Mary Oliansky has seen some of the wildest and remotest places in the Hudson Valley, but nothing thrills her more than stumbling on an abandoned building waiting to be explored. Within the past few years Mary has included photography in her list of passions and has joined with the Forsaken Photography team on several outings. While relatively new to the “sport,” Mary has a powerful connection to many of the area’s venerable abandonments.
“The first time I photographed anything was at Sam’s Point Preserve in 2012. I had just started hiking two years’ prior, and was fascinated with the berry pickers’ shacks. The fellow I was dating at the time grew up in Cragsmoor and knew the history behind them. It was amazing to me that anyone could live and make a living (however small) in a place that I considered as one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen…and then seeing their homes just taken over by nature herself was both sad and somehow beautiful at the same time.”
Mary tells us her fascination with abandonation began when she was in her teens. While visiting relatives in the Catskills she discovered a few abandoned cabins nearby. Inside, she found a dogeared notebook with notes from medical school dating back to the 1940s. “I was hooked!” she said. It wasn’t until years later that Mary realized there was “an entire community of people with the same interest.”
A favorite place for this intrepid outdoorswoman is the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House in Woodstock (we’re guessing she is not deterred by the timber snakes coiled in the tall grass). She also enjoys hiking up Mount Beacon and exploring the rusting remains of the Incline Railway. But like many others, Mary gravitates to places that have a personal history for her. She states that the place she would most like to explore is United Hospital in her hometown of Port Chester. She tells us that her father suffered from mental illness and spent time in their psychiatric unit. She acknowledges visiting a place with such a powerful personal connection would be both “exciting and eerie.”
While men, she contends, are more apt to “take chances” when entering a location, they don’t necessarily have a particular artistic sensibility. She tells us, “I have seen photos from men that show the same attention to detail that female photographers capture. It does seem, though, that a lot of the male photogs like to only go for the nitty gritty down and dirty shots!” Women, she believes, are conditioned from an early age to be “clean, neat and tidy,” and you do “get dirty and break fingernails out there. Quite a few women I know think I’m nutty for doing this, but then they are fascinated by the photos!”
In addition to photographing the abandoned, Mary enjoys shooting scenes from nature and in cemeteries. On her Forsaken Photography colleagues she says, “we keep each other motivated and the response from people viewing my photos is really encouraging. But of course, the locations themselves are enough of a draw for me to get out and explore!”
Like her Forsaken Photography shooting partners, Janice Pospisil began photographing derelict, deserted and abandoned places as an outgrowth of her passion for hiking. She tells us, “I would be out hiking and when I came across an abandoned building I just had to explore it. I never knew other people had an interest in these places. Now I search roadsides and towns for these hidden gems.”
Once Janice realized she was not alone, she decided to use the power of Facebook to reach out to others. She tells us, “When Facebook arrived and there was a virtual showcase of photos, I decided to begin with a hiking page. Hiking was always my first love although I later started photographing smaller abandoned places and posting them on my ever-growing hiking page. A friend at work saw my photos and told me about a page called Abandoned Hudson Valley. I checked out the page and looked through the images and was floored by the amount of photos that were taken right here in my own area. I then decided to branch out and start my Forsaken Photography page.
“Today I have a few friends who share my passion and somewhat unusual hobby of looking for abandoned, desolate places. I am lucky to be able to meet up with these people from time to time and not feel so alone. Traveling with others seems to lessen the fear of approaching the structures. I am also lucky to have a brother who is an awesome photographer. He started out with no interest in these places but little by little he has come to realize that these buildings come alive once again through photography.”
As for gender issues, she feels that “perhaps mean have less fear when it comes to exploring.” She continues, “And I know from talking to other women that there are quite a few who wish they had the courage to do what I do. Women may also stay away from it to avoid the criticism of friends and peers.”
What draws her to places that can be unsafe? She says, “When I see an abandoned building, structure, site, the first thing is I ‘feel.’ I’m not just looking at a place to explore but I am looking at a puzzle. I start imagining, if it was a private home, who lived there. What memories does this house hold? Where did the people go to just leave this standing alone. Was it a happy place or a place of sadness or hard times? If items are left behind such as toys, tools, etc., it gives me clues as to who was here. When I look at just a random structure I try to think what it was used for in its former life. I wonder about the people who had this structure as part of their working life. This holds more for factories. I think about how this former factory was once a place filled with workers. These men and women went there day after day and it was such a part of their lives and livelihood. And then if I come across a facility, the dark halls and doorways, I am most absorbed. I think, once again, and it is my wild imagination that takes over. I have a feeling women may respect these abandoned sites more. I say this because I have seen the destruction and have seen it taking place. But this doesn’t speak for everyone.
Janice tells us her Forsaken Photography page continues to grow as more people discover their unique take on Hudson Valley abandonments. She says, “There is beauty in forgotten, abandoned places. Especially when nature takes over and the trees and vines become part of the brickwork and window frames. It’s awesome!”
To see more of Janice’s work, visit the Forsaken Photography page.