Now & Then: There’s Something About an Abandoned Building
By Erica L. Shames
There’s something about abandoned buildings that intrigues Shane Kiefer. In them, he sees stories too precious to be forgotten. And he uses his camera to memorialize them.
We’ve all seen them. A forgotten hospital. An abandoned factory. A bankrupt hotel. Decrepit vestiges of a bygone era most of us are too willing to forget. But Shane Kiefer, of Lewisburg, considers it his mission to seek out their histories, and share them with us. The result is memorable art.
“A lot of what I do regarding abandoned photography focuses on finding old places that still have a story to tell,” he says. “People drive by them on a regular basis and think they’re old and ugly. I try to bring some of these places back to life.”
In addition to using his photography to infuse a structure with renewed vigor, Kiefer researches the history of a place to approach it from an archival standpoint. “Many times, after I’ve been to a place and photographed it, I find out it’s been torn down,” he notes. “At one point in time, these places were important aspects of a community’s history. Preserving them through photographs is important.”
Research begins when Kiefer anticipates he’ll be traveling to a certain city. He’ll start his inquiry on Google Earth. “I try to isolate larger towns that look like hubs of transportation and population,” he notes. “I will look for satellite imagery of buildings that have trees growing up around them or roofs with holes in them. You can tell from an aerial view what kind of shape it’s in.”
Newspaper articles will reveal something about a building’s use and history. “The last step is to do an excursion to scout out a place and see how closely the reality matches what I’ve found out online,” he said. “Sometimes a place has been demolished. Or it’s in worse shape than I thought.”
Then Kiefer tries to gain access—by contacting the building owner, real estate developer or even a security guard. “If they say no, I don’t go,” he emphasizes.
And he typically takes someone with him. “It’s mainly an issue of safety,” he says. “If the floor collapses or I fall down an elevator shaft, I want someone to be there to call for help.”
Kiefer’s research has yielded some interesting destinations, including sanitoriums, hospitals and asylums. “There are a lot of residual stories and memories lingering [in these places],” Kiefer says. “Significant life events took place there, and they leave a larger impression—even after the place has closed.”
Seaside Sanitorium, outside New London, Conn., was originally built as a facility to treat children with tuberculosis. It’s also been a home for the elderly, a medical hospital and a facility to treat the mentally ill. Opened in the early 1930s, the building was designed by the renowned architect Cass Gilbert, who designed the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and the Woolworth Building in New York City. The facility was closed in 1996.
Shane and his friend Brandon had some chilling experiences as they took photographs on the first floor. “The whole way down the hallway it felt like someone was pressing an ice cube up against the back of my knee,” said Shane. [He later found out this method was used by doctors to test a patient’s nerve functioning.]
On the second floor, Shane and Brandon became separated. Shane called Brandon’s name in a whisper and someone whispered back, “What?” [Later, Brandon revealed it wasn’t he who had answered.]
On the third floor, Brandon led the way into a room off the stairwell. He got a few steps into the room and froze when he heard a little girl’s voice whisper in his ear, “Uh oh.”
When they reviewed their photographs, a shadowy image was standing at one of the sinks washing their hands in the bathroom on the second floor.
“Hearing the voices, having things show up in photographs—that was a strange place,” said Kiefer. “We didn’t feel like it was a bad vibe, just a sadness. We hadn’t put much stock into the idea of another plane or the supernatural, but when you have an experience like that you come away with an attitude of, who am I to judge?”
More to the story
In college, Brandon had explored the Anna S. Mine in Antrim, outside Wellsboro, with a geology class. While in the mine, students heard the sound of a woman crying. The group returned to their university vehicle to find the dashboard clock was flashing and had reset to 12:00. The group went back later in the week and had the same thing happen, even though they drove a different car.
Three years later, Shane convinced Brandon to take him to the Anna S. Mine to put Brandon’s fears to rest. When driving down the road to get to the mine, Shane suddenly slammed on the brakes. “I felt like something had tried to grab the steering wheel and wrest the car out of my control,” he said.
When they entered the woods to try to find the mine entrance their compass started spinning in circles and the wind picked up, seemingly out of nowhere. “It sounded like a voice whispered over the wind, ‘Not here.’ Then we almost stepped on a rattlesnake,” Kiefer recalls. “We booked it back to the car. As we were leaving, we heard the sound of a woman sobbing very loud, echoing in the woods. It was terrifying. We have no explanation for it. It just felt evil.”
Long ago and far away
Kiefer explains his fascination with photographing abandoned sites by contrasting the impermanence of today’s culture. “There’s a level of craftsmanship to these buildings I find appealing,” he said. “Today, things aren’t meant to last. In 50 years, what buildings are we going to leave behind? People poured their lives into these places and now they’re not given a second glance.”
Particularly poignant, Kiefer finds, is the stories of people who were left behind. “Years ago, if a wealthy family had a child with a birth defect, autism, depression or even ADD, the common practice was to take them to a home and leave them there. Equally compelling are the stories of lost people and lost souls.”
Amusement parks are one of the most enthralling structures Kiefer likes to photograph. The Six Flags in New Orleans, for example, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and never rebuilt. Kiefer’s photo When We Were Young captures a sentimental perspective.
“It’s a very moving scene,” said Kiefer. “The roller coaster is still there; the bumper cars are gathering dust. My goal was to illustrate the nostalgic aspect and bring out emotions—a sadness because the place is no longer there and because it brings out memories of a forgotten childhood that faded away into the weeds.”
And Kiefer is equally fascinated by useful buildings that are now idle, including a coal colliery outside Shenandoah—St. Nicholas Coal Breaker. Kiefer visited 10 years ago—it’s since been torn down—and witnessed a room with benches lined with dozens of miners’ boots covered in dirt. The result was his photo, A Miner’s Story. “When the mine closed, these miners took off their boots for the last time, left them on the benches and never returned,” marveled Kiefer. “Each pair of boots is the story of someone’s life; to forget about them is a travesty.”
Kiefer’s photographs tend to stir up memories and emotions in the people who view them. Last year, Kiefer’s work on display at the Lewisburg Arts Festival included a photo, he titled Waiting, of two wheelchairs sitting on a balcony, overlooking a property—a former tuberculosis hospital in New Jersey.
“I could picture patients sitting there in the wheelchairs with nothing better to do,” Kiefer explains. “When the place closed, the patients moved on but the wheelchairs are still there waiting for people who would never return.
“Some people walk by the photo and says it’s beautiful; others find it ugly,” Kiefer continues. “One older gentleman stared at the photo for a few moments before walking up to me. He said, ‘That photo makes me so sad,’ and he was almost in tears. I thought maybe it reminded him of something or someone. Witnessing the effect my work has on people makes it all worthwhile.”