As you might already know, or might not if you haven’t read my older posts, I’m a student of photography at MTSU. Yeah, I’d been shooting for years before I signed up, but I knew that I had a lot yet to learn, I will always have a lot more to learn. Anyway, I took some of the photo classes a little out of sequence, resulting in me taking “Basics of Digital Photography” after I had completed Basic Black and White (a film photo course), and while I was also taking Intermediate Black and White Photography. My instructional series of posts (which are still ongoing) are loosely based on the structure of this particular course.
Having somewhat seriously pursued photography for several years beforehand, I was pretty familiar with most of what the course was to cover. My professor knew that, of course, and gave me a fair amount of additional freedom while also posing some new challenges for me to focus on so that I didn’t get too bored (there’s the mark of a fantastic professor). Naturally, when finals came around, I knew I’d have to do something different. Pictures of shop fronts, signage, and people in the streets could only be so interesting for so long. Fortunately, I already knew what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure that I knew.
I had already started shooting for it, though, knowing I wanted to focus on something to do with abandoned properties. So when I settled on the idea of Rural Decay as my topic, I already had one location to incorporate. That was this property, a historic cabin that had nearly fallen to pieces, I wandered around inside, but took great care of where I stepped. The back room of the building had a burlap sack of beans that had been spilled across the floor around some buckets, and simply left there, a photo that I had used for the previous project.
So once I had settled on something like my final topic, I started reaching out to local realtors in search of desolate properties in the greater Nashville area that I could go check out, even promising that I would consider submitting an offer on the property after I’d photographed it, and even if I didn’t like it enough to try to pick up, that I’d at least offer them new listing photos for the property. Nobody wanted anything to do with it. So I was stumped for a bit. Part of me, I guess, was struggling with the trespassing aspect of it. Wasn’t long, though, before I decided I should just follow in the footsteps of one of my favorite photographers, Johnny Joo of ArchitecturalAfterlife.com, and just go for it. So, I set off after school one day down some back roads.
That’s where I found these two beauties.
The first, one of those “basically-a-trailer” homes, was not exactly what had caught my eye as I first drove by, but it was the first that I headed to once I’d gotten my gear ready. It might not have been interesting at all to the average person, just another crappy old home left to rot. But that’s exactly what excites me about these kinds of places. Once I’d done a few flash-painted shots, I moved on to the bar next door. Crumbling ceilings, trash strewn everywhere, not one single pane of glass left unbroken. That’s one of those spots I’d very much like to return to, I could shoot an entire series just on that bar, especially if I could get some history on it. By the time I got to it, I had lost almost all natural light, so my old flash and my release cable were very much my friends as I ventured around inside, my flashlight, too. There were too many cool shots to take, and not nearly enough options for focal length, worse yet, my camera is a crop sensor, so even less angle to my shots. Still, I’m pretty happy with what I got.
The following weekend had me back on the hunt, this time to the northernmost regions of Middle Tennessee. I started out in Adams, having hoped that I could visit the Bell Witch cave while I was there (no such luck, it was closed), and drove around for a few hours looking for ideal spots. I didn’t think that I’d be getting all of my days photos at a single property, but they did NOT disappoint. Three decaying buildings on one property? Jackpot.
I found it somewhere north of Cedar Hill, TN, down some back roads that I’d taken just because I had a good feeling about them (how else do you think photographers find these places?). After a chat with a local who thought I might have broken down and needed some help, I dove into the outbuilding on the property. A little building that had probably been meant to be a workshop, but had somehow turned into someone’s book storage; which is a shame, because the weather and the fauna had gotten to the books before I could. All that was left was a couch that might have been at least a little moldy, some cans and bottles, and a huge pile of soggy paperbacks.
Next up came the main house. If I’d gone in the front instead of the back, I might have been caused some slight hesitation by the sign above the door that announced “No Trespassing.” On further inspection, I clearly wasn’t the only person who didn’t pay it any mind, since when I got inside, there was graffiti on almost every wall. The sloppily spray painted letters poorly spelled out childish things like “I like boobies,” and “sex is good,” which I won’t even attempt to spell as they were. Then there was the floating toilet, suspended only by the plumbing below, as the floor had rotted away beneath. I think that might have been my favorite shot of this series, and I think my professor agreed with me. It was the only photo that got a good laugh out of him, after all, though the shot of the chair in the front room brought some discussion as well; he likes photos of chairs. I quite liked the kitchen shot, as well, having had the most fascinating lighting of the lot. The third building didn’t make it into the final selection, but was an old barn that had been locked up securely enough that I didn’t even bother to try to find a way in.
My next, and final venture on the following weekend led me eastward, across Short Mountain, and up towards Cookeville. This was where I wished I had gone from the very start. Not only were the roads fantastic and the scenery beyond beautiful, there was no shortage of empty and rotting buildings. The last four stops were the ones that made it into the project, of course, because why wouldn’t they?
First of the four was another property with a few buildings to have my pick of. A nicer old house that I didn’t even bother to go inside (that’s how sketchy it looked), stood on the side of a hill along with two sheds, and a few fenced in areas that had likely been for poultry. That massive satellite dish, though, was probably the biggest eye catcher on the property from the road. Sadly, it blends pretty well with the woods behind it.
The second stop was one I definitely had to turn around for, it would have been easily missed if it weren’t exactly the kind of thing I was hunting for. It seemed like a hunting cabin almost, just the basics, one bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living space that had probably been used as an office. An old newspaper left behind in a pile of junk over a rotting floor told me that it’s last inhabitants had left sometime around 2005.
My third location was very much a hoarder home. Located right in between an empty for-sale property, and a whole bunch of nothing. This was the second time throughout this project that I wished people would just store their books in plastic bins instead of cardboard boxes (meanwhile, my books are all in cardboard boxes in my storage unit… Well, not all of them). Once I’d pushed my way in the front door of the place, I had to basically climb over boxes of clothes and fabrics and dime shelf romance-thrillers (among which Glimpse into Terror was the one that fell most visibly in the frame of one of my shots) to see what lay in the back rooms (I was disappointed). The piles of junk, appliances, and boxes in the kitchen were the reason that I didn’t go through the door shown in the photo of the chair. Just about everything had that “grandma’s house” feel to it, aside from the rotting and disarray bit. I remember there having been a calendar on one of the walls in the main room, but for some reason, I didn’t take a picture of it. Shame.
The very last place I spotted not more than two miles from the third. I’d been hoping for a good trailer, and this definitely fit the bill. I mean, what says rural living like a good ol’ trailer home? This one was about as dangerous to get around as the first, so I didn’t venture too far inside, but it was the view from the outside that interested me more this time, especially since it looked like the pit behind the trailer had been used as a sort of dumping hole for tires, trash, you name it. Maybe it had been where they had bonfires in the past. Certainly no sign of a fire, now.
This series of adventures has inspired me to keep going on the idea of “Rural and Urban Decay,” themes that I’ve been toying with for quite some time, which you can really tell in my early digital work (check out my instagram @w.f.photography, there are three perfect examples towards the very beginning). Hopefully, I’ll be bringing you a new series of photos very soon under the title “The Echoes Project.” I’ll tell more at a later date!