Finding and photographing abandoned places can be an adventure. There are known abandoned places, ghost towns or preserved old schoolhouses clearly marked for tourists. Then there are the lesser known and harder to find places, the places not everyone can get to. I shoot a mix. My gallery of shots includes both a residential house where the caretaker said I could shoot but asked me to not disclose the address and also Portland’s famous Stone House. As long as they haven’t gotten touristy, I shoot the whole spectrum. I want to fill my galleries with more offbeat places, but I’d be a fool to ignore Stone House.
I usually happen across my spots in my travels. For this article, I wanted to see what tracking down a specific place would be like. My theory was that online research would be unreliable at best. I was definitely right. It’s a good thing that I had the cards stacked in my favor. I saw articles about abandoned places to shoot in Oregon that listed spots demolished years before the publication date. I was already familiar enough with some of these places to easily sift through and discount many of them. Some I knew to be lost to fire or redevelopment. If I had been going into this cold, it would have been a mess.
Hilariously, a number of articles recommended shooting the Portland Gas & Coke Building. Not only is ts long gone, but when it still stood it was inside restricted Federal land, part of the Port of Portland. Unless you worked there or had a way to get special access, the only way to shoot it was to skulk along a chain link fence with high end camera equipment. People have done and gotten away with it, one person even did a night shoot. Messing about at the edge of a secured Federal area with high powered camera gear is not a life choice I would make. But again, it’s a moot point as the Port finally demolished it.
Abandoned places become lost to time
Speaking of lost places, this section of abandoned highway was my favorite place in the Columbia River Gorge. It’s very near where the Eagle Creek Fire started. We won’t know for a while if it survived at all, but chances are slim. I deeply regret not going back out and shooting it this past summer. This photo I have of it is rather old.
One great reason to get out and shoot is that abandoned places can disappear at any moment. They feel timeless, but in reality they can go quite suddenly. Portland’s Hayden Island was home to a giant sprawling abandoned luxury hotel. I’d meant to shoot it for years. The very day I’d put aside to go shoot it, it burned down. I don’t know how much I could have safely shot, but I’d feel much happier if I knew I had at least given it a try. Stone House has suffered more storm damage since my initial time shooting it. I will always regret not re-shooting Old Route 30 after getting serious about photography. If you want unique shots in your portfolio, it’s hard to beat shots that can’t be replicated.
Some abandoned places disappear overnight, and some decay slowly.
The hunt is on!
Back to my search for a place to shoot. I settled on an old house said to be not far from Portland. I’d seen pictures of it online claiming that it was a boarding school for girls back in the 1800s. It turned out to be a fairly recent structure that was never completed. This is the place where the caretaker asked me to not disclose the location, so I will refer to is as The MacGuffin House. After all, the quest to find it was more important that the shot itself.
Basic research lead to directions nearly straight away. It was early in the day, so I grabbed my bag and headed out … to the wrong town. Not only do some photographers not disclose locations, it turns out they will post fake addresses. Lesson learned. If you think you have a lead on a location, I highly recommend a technique that I am going to call Google Maps Creeping. Google Maps can be slow to update and trees can block views, so it’s not a 100% method to knowing if you’ve got the right area, but you can at least tell if it looks likely. You can also see if the creepy old Victorian is now condos. I found the right place from a general location someone had put in the comments to another person’s photo and inched my way through the map until I saw the right roof shape.
To Disclose or Not Disclose
You know your neck of the woods better than I do. My rule of thumb is that if disclosing might put people heading out to the site in danger, I don’t do it. Oregon has long standing and systemic problems with people trying to live outside society. Many kinds of people, from hold over hippies to locals with guns, and many, many others. If the neighbors of a property ask me to not list where I took the shot, I don’t. I am not going to cause problems from the people who live next to a place.
Also keep in mind that if you put in time to build a shooting list and post locations, you are giving away what you worked for. You don’t have an obligation to tell no one nothin’. I like sharing what I can, if I’ve already shot it. But if your gallery is the result of hours of driving, hiking, exploring and researching. You really aren’t under any obligation to tag specific locations or let someone else copy you for one-tenth the work. I have had projects wholesale copied, right down to the chosen angles. So, I am a little salty on this topic. At the same time, I am a bit idealistic about photographers helping photographers so I try to strike a good balance.
This is an abandoned mill in Vernonia Lake City Park. Like with Portland’s Stone House, I will freely give the location because it’s on public land.
Looking abandoned versus being abandoned
On my recent drives through Central Oregon I saw lots of abandoned places, and most were pretty boring. On my road trip around Puget Sound last year, I assumed a church was abandoned and it turned out not to be. That made for an awkward conversation.
Some of the places with the most interesting looks are owned and cared about by someone. This is also true of MacGuffin House, it has a caretaker and the owners want to be living in it. In rural areas, sometimes people will build a new house rather than renovate an old one. The old one is still on private land and may have been the childhood home of people across the farm.
I’ve lived urban, suburban and rural areas. I move between them pretty easily. If you are primarily a city person, heading out into a rural area, be careful about assumptions.
Part 2 is now up! I’ve been shooting these places for years and have a lot to say! In the meantime, let us know what shooting abandoned places in your area is like!