How stealthy photographers get great shots where others fear to tread.
Howl, Allen Ginsberg's ode to alienation, invokes "the visible mad man doom of the wards of the madtowns of the East." A few of those madtowns -- vast insane asylums in campus settings -- are still standing, abandoned and rotting into exquisite ruin. And, in the same way that photographs of the empty wrecks speak more eloquently than if the buildings were new, Howl's description of one of them is even more accurate now than it was when Ginsberg's mother died there in 1956: "Greystone's foetid halls, bickering with the echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnite..."
Recent pictures of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital capture that poetic vision. Founded in 1876 as the New Jersey State Lunatic asylum, north of Morristown, this is where folk music pioneer Woody Guthrie spent five years, 1956 to 1961, as he was ravaged by Huntington's disease. He was visited on Ward 40 by an awestruck Bob Dylan, who later wrote up the encounter in "Song For Woody." Wardy Forty, as Guthrie called it, was a synapse in modern musical history that has been moldering away and off-limits since the mid-1970s.
That hidden dilapidation is exactly what interested photographer Phillip Buehler. His photographs of the disintegrating landmark will be published in a book, Wardy Forty: Woody Guthrie at Greystone Park (University of Illinois Press).
Guthrie, bickering with the echoes of his own soul, was committed to Greystone because of a misdiagnosis. He was photographed the day he arrived in 1956 and the day he left, in 1961. In 2002, those two pictures were still in the basement files, along with about 50,000 other negatives, when Buehler and a friend, having approached stealthily through the woods on bicycles, evaded security (there's a police station across the street) and entered the imposing, Neo-Gothic, gray granite edifice.
Breaking & Entering
"Rana, get down!" Ryan hisses. Rana X (her nickname and studio name), a 26-year-old urbex photographer with a few hundred trips to about 30 asylums under her belt -- not counting prisons, industrial sites, and other derelict places -- drops to her feet. A construction worker on the grounds of the abandoned farm colony above is wandering near the fence less than a dozen yards away.
After huddling on the ground for about 15 minutes, we scramble up the steep surface to the colony, slipping on dead leaves and hanging to clumps of brambles for balance. At the top, we boost our gear through a gap in a rusty chain-link fence and shimmy in.
Our last obstacle is the guarded road that leads to our destination: an asylum on the grounds of the colony that's been abandoned since it closed in 1975. This we do in sprints. Finally, we're at one of the ward buildings, hooded and eerie behind a wall of towering pines. Rana pulls open the door. We're in.
In all, a tame break-in. Rana and Ryan are both used to scaling barbed-wire fences and dashing through wooded complexes at a run from state cops. In one, a security guard would stalk them through the underground tunnels, leaving "party poppers" (small novelty fireworks) at the entrances, which the unwitting explorers set off as they climbed down into darkness. Last week, Rana tells me, she visited an abandoned hospital at a state prison. "If they'd seen us and thought we were escapees," she realizes, "they could have shot at us."
Now, to avoid a sensor, we leave our flashlights off as we climb through the unlit stairwell, slipping on mounds of dust and flaked-off drywall on the stairs. Then we're at the top floor stairwell, stepping into the fifth-floor ward. Vines creep through the broken windows lining the back walls, overlooking a rolling green expanse of woods studded with red brick Mission-style ward buildings. The floor is littered with artifacts -- an abandoned wheelchair, a faded blue stretcher, bleached-out catalogs from the '70s. On the floors below, we'll find a straitjacket, electroshock equipment, a broken piano lit by flickering fluorescent lights. Massive holes in the walls create a series of views into examination rooms beyond. In short, photo ops abound.
Danger averted, Rana and Ryan put their flashlights away and drop their bags. Ryan sets up his tripod, and Rana fits a lens on her Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. After all, it's partly about the thrill. But mostly it's about the pictures. -Lori Fredrickson
Buehler had his Mamiya 7 with a 43mm lens and Provia film -- check. Cell phone on vibrate -- check. First aid kit -- check. Rope in case someone falls through a floor -- check.
Buehler has shot pictures in forbidden places all over the world, including an airplane graveyard near Tucson, AZ, a now-demolished Alcoa aluminum plant near Edgewater, NJ, and rotting U-boat bunkers built by slave labor in the 1940s near Bremen, Germany. (You can see more of his work at www.modern-ruins.com.) He's part of a growing movement in which photographers are becoming curators of a receding reality. There's no denying the romance of wreck and ruin -- and photography is a passageway and an excuse to wallow in it.
Abandoned chemical plants, timeworn miniature-golf courses, silent steel mills. The dilapidated city of Gary, IN. Nevada's 1,375-square-mile nuclear testing grounds. Parched water parks, secret ghost towns, the decommissioned missile bunkers ringing most major cities. Pretty much everything in the built or altered environment is being photographed for posterity, with or without official permission.
Most of us have done this inadvertently. Whatever it was that drew me to the paddle wheeler graveyard up in the Yukon, or the jungle-choked secret army base now manned by monkeys on an island in the middle of the Panama Canal, is the same thing that pulls us all toward a place we're not supposed to be, a zone with no rules, off the cultural grid. People are competing in a form of one-downmanship, braving asbestos, PCBs, poison gas, radioactivity, killer mold, venomous spiders, rats, meth freaks -- and, of course, cops and trespassing citations -- to locate and capture in pictures the played-out dreams and flyblown empires retrogressing in civilization's rearview mirror.
Digital technology is driving the craze. You can guile your way into an old rackabones building in the morning, shoot 40 images, upload them onto a website that evening, and read global commentary on them before midnight. Buehler calls himself a photographic historian, but others call themselves industrial archaeologists, urban explorers ("urbexers"), drainers, and cataphiles -- those who like to slither underground into Parisian catacombs and L.A. storm drains. Almost all of them carry cameras.
In the abandoned darkroom downstairs at Greystone, Buehler shot the overflowing photo-file cabinets of long-gone patients, but didn't touch a thing. "Once you have a photograph of it, you've rescued it in some way," he explains.
He found out later that the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives were in Manhattan, and that led to the troubadour's medical record numbers. Then Buehler snuck back into Greystone, used the numbers to locate Woody's mugshots in the file drawers, and liberated them from oblivion. The 5x7-inch negatives are now part of the Guthrie archives.
Rescuing such sunken treasure is almost unheard of, though there are plenty of patient records, electroshock machines, and other artifacts still hidden in the festering remains of asylums. (The patient negatives and medical records at Greystone were hastily cleaned out by authorities after Buehler's story appeared in the magazine Weird New Jersey.)
Still, East Coast urbexers are spoiled. The Kirkbride insane asylums, built in the late-1800s to the specifications of mental health pioneer Thomas Story Kirkbride, really were madtowns, with their own post offices, carpentry shops, and fire departments. The two dozen derelicts still standing, originally designed in grand styles by leading American architects, are spread all over the Northeast. Photographs inside these deteriorating structures, usually shot with available light, often evoke Howl's "visible mad man doom," and reach the level of art.
Ian Ference, a 25-year-old full-time urban explorer and photographer in New Jersey who hangs with a small cell of about 15 likeminded, even high-minded, fellow ruin-rooters, has gone as far as to use grappling hooks and knotted ropes to climb into second-floor windows. Sometimes he and his companions "predawn" a building so they can doze inside until the sun comes up. They rarely use flash, which tends to blast out the creepy texture of peeling paint and the end-of-the-world half-light oozing through tattered curtains.
Ference has made 30-minute exposures using his 30-year-old Minolta XD 11, loaded with Fujicolor Pro 160S. "My thing is institutional tubercular sanatoriums, psychiatric asylums, and prisons," he says. "They have the most history, the most pathos. They're part of our collective heritage that's being lost."