"Urban exploring" has really exploded over the past couple of years thanks to social media apps like Instagram and Tumblr, with young photographers in cities like New York, Toronto, and Tokyo risking life and limb to get the perfect shot so that their likes can go crazy the next morning. While it may be trendy and cool, it does take more than a nice camera and the balls to break the law to be considered a legit photographer, and really once you've seen a cityscape from the same angle 30 times, no one cares.
Instead of doing it for the 'gram and chasing meaningless likes, photographer Will Ellis has spent years researching and photographing abandoned spaces in New York City that are actually worth seeing. Ellis started a blog aptly titled Abandoned NYC back in 2012, and recently worked with Schiffer Books to publish a book of photography by the same name. The book features over 200 images of empty and dilapidated hospitals, railroads, military installations, industrial sites, and other "forgotten places" across the five boroughs.
From the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn where Kara Walker installed A Subtlety this past May, to the Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens where stalagmites of pigeon shit stand feet tall, Ellis' book gives an incredible look at the New York City "behind the 'No Trespassing' sign," and also provides a history lesson that you won't get from Instagram. We spoke to the photographer about his fascination with urban decay, how he finds places to shoot, and about the advice that he would give to young photographers who are inspired by his work to go explore their city.
Can you explain why you started the Abandoned NYC blog and how that grew into a book deal with Schiffer?
I wandered into my first abandoned building on a whim and soon found myself heading out to new locations every chance I got. At first I was just drawn to the visuals, but as it went on, I started digging through the archives of the New York Times and figuring out the history of these places and how they fit into the broader history of New York City. At that point I started the blog, and soon made it goal to get a book together, I'm so excited to finally get into people's hands.
Without sharing all of your secrets, can you explain how you find and gain entry into some of these places?
This "urban exploring" phenomenon has become pretty widespread, especially in the past few years that I've been doing this. Most of the places I shoot are pretty easy to find online, typically if a place is accessible in New York City, there are already tons of pictures up on the Internet. I wish there was a better way to go about it, but trespassing is usually the only way to access these places--property owners have little to gain from having someone photograph their neglected building, and there are major liability issues, these buildings can be pretty dangerous.
Do you work alone?
I usually prefer to work alone, and definitely was on my own most of the time when I first started this project. I actually prefer it that way because it allows me to really focus on the pictures, and feel a deeper connection to these places. It's similar to that feeling of solitude you might get exploring the world's natural wonders.
Which borough do you think has the best abandoned spaces?
One of my favorite parts about doing this project has been getting to know the outer boroughs. It's hard to pick a favorite, but I think Staten Island would be at the top of my list. It's a pretty fascinating place because most of it has just been developed in the past 50 years, but there are these few places where you kind find remnants of old Staten Island, which was a very different place. They also have a pretty bad track record of neglecting their historic landmarks, which is a shame, but it does make for some pretty incredible ruins.
What advice would you give to young urban photographers who are inspired by your work to venture into abandoned structures?
I don't really intend the blog or the book to be used as a travel guide, but I know a lot of people see it that way, and who am I to discourage people from doing the exact same thing I've done? I would just encourage young people who are really determined to do this to be extremely careful and have their wits about them, because they really can be dangerous and it's not uncommon for people to get hurt in these buildings. Also to be respectful, if a place is pretty untouched don't wreck it for no reason. For photographers just starting out—use a tripod. Aside from a camera, it's the most important piece of equipment you'll need to capture these places.
Head to AbandonedNYCBook.com to get a signed copy of Ellis' book with a free print.