When I started photographing these abandoned places I was most interested in the dark side: the ugly underbelly of society turned beautiful by the camera’s eye. I photographed Pennhurst – an abandoned children’s asylum – with great excitement. The idea of exploring a place where so much life had gone wrong filled me with a strange power, perhaps akin to that idea of wrestling with our own demons. But afterwards I was reluctant to share the photographs. The empty, sheeted bed with the peeling walls behind it was so incredibly sad – and the bed itself a kind of relief map of those who had used it. I was almost embarrassed by bearing witness to the stark devastation of this place; not just the walls but the human spirits that seemed to haunt Pennhurst.
Photographing this theater is at the opposite side of that experience spectrum. The paint is faded, yes – the artifacts sit in silent storage. But they remind us of an era of opulence. The portrait of the projectionist hangs on the wall above his private sink in the projector room, celebrating and honoring his life. The machinery of the then state-of-the-art projectors is cheery with its red and yellow lettering, the bakelite knobs. And the theater is owned by a non profit organization that is actively restoring it as a music venue – hope abounds.
I don’t know if the experiences of photographing these two places and my responses to them are a map of my own psyche or not, but I’ve learned a lot about what moves me as an artist, and I’m looking forward to exploring that more.
I returned to the SLC one sunny, hot Saturday because it was so huge I was convinced I hadn’t seen the whole thing the first time I visited. I was right. I crunched through vast rooms of interior landscapes, fascinated by reflecting pools, greenery, tiny waterfalls and a strange moss that covered some of the damper regions of the factory. There had been changes since my visit last fall. The bowling alley was in greater disrepair. The groovy yellow couch had been moved, so had the jaunty chair near the kitchen. I concentrated on the cavernous wide-open rooms, recording the various characters of each one. I found the “crate room” – missed on the previous visit, and the office with its wall of glass block and red mantle. I found the clock tower, previously missed. But I couldn’t bring myself to climb the final flight up inside to get the shot I wanted. The stairs were too steep and I am to afraid of heights. I never made it to the giant loom room, and I missed some interesting spaces in that wing.
But I’m going back. The complex is scheduled to be torn down in October. September 5th may be the last date that the factory will be opened up to urban exploration. So I’m taking it, and I’m determined to climb those steep steps up into the tower next time.
I took another trip to the Pennhurst School – a residential facility for children with disabilities that closed in 1987. The media had reported repeated instances of abuse and neglect, and the school did not keep up with advances in the treatment of mental disorders and differences. Most of the buildings and grounds of this immense facility are off limits. Here are a few images captured in the two buildings that are still open on occasion: