These Photographers Capture the Haunting Beauty of Ghost Towns
There’s a reason that ghost towns are empty. Maybe a nearby precious resource, like oil or gold, was wholly depleted. Perhaps it was a natural disaster, or a manmade one. The highway was rerouted, or the river diverted. Maybe disease struck, or famine.
Whatever the cause, the resulting tableaus of decay and desolation have fascinated artists for centuries.
“It’s almost all trespassing,” American photographer Noel Kerns has said of his shoots. “Seldom do I have permission. It’s easier to ask forgiveness if you need it. In general, most people don’t care, and most people don’t find out.” Kerns, who is based in Dallas, Texas, has been capturing the abandoned houses, churches, and schools of American ghost towns since 2007, when he learned the technique of “light painting,” a style of night photography that incorporates artificial lighting and long exposures to create images awash in color.
In Kern’s work, derelict and dilapidated buildings appear to glow from within, illuminating empty windows and doorways in shades of red or blue. They’re undeniably uncanny—but Kerns said he doesn’t often feel spooked during these trips, even while shooting alone in the dark. “It’s probably disappointing to most people, but in general, it doesn’t bother me as much as you would think,” he told Artsy. There have been a few notable exceptions, though: an old hotel in Detroit where he couldn’t shake the sense he was being followed; an empty church in Gary, Indiana, where he walked over something sticky that, upon closer inspection, appeared to be partially dried blood. “That was an extremely uneasy feeling,” he recalled.
French photographer Romain Veillon has been fascinated by abandoned spaces since childhood, when he spent his summers exploring an old truck factory owned by his grandmother. Now, his practice centers around capturing the beauty of these forgotten, deteriorating sites. “When I encounter such a place,” he explained, “my goal is that everybody can travel in the past with me and make up their own stories: Why was this place abandoned? What happened to the former owners? What used to happen in this room?”
The questions are particularly compelling in the case of Kolmanskop, a former diamond-mining town in Namibia where sands have partially reclaimed the buildings. Established in 1908, the town quickly became a hub of the region. Legend has it that the diamonds were so plentiful, one could simply stroll across the sand at night to find the precious stones sparkling in the moonlight.
But following World War I, a drop in the price of diamonds and the discovery of a larger deposit in the south pulled people away. By 1956, the town was abandoned. Today, small tour groups visit around noon each day, but Vellion said that for the most part, it is quiet and empty. During the week he spent shooting in Kolmanskop, he would arrive around 5 a.m. “to watch how the sun changed the colors of the rooms little by little,” he said. “The atmosphere was completely unreal, you feel like it is another planet; or maybe Earth, but centuries after the last man has disappeared.”
According to local legend, the town of Picher, Oklahoma, was created by accident. In 1914, the Picher Lead Company of Joplin, Missouri, sent workers to deliver equipment to a site in Oklahoma. Their truck got mired in the mud, however, and to relieve their boredom, the men drilled a hole. Surprisingly, they hit something—a thick vein of zinc and lead. The company set up shop, and the town of Picher sprung up around the new mines.
By the 1920s, the area was the country’s number-one producer of the two metals, the source of most metal used in ammunition in World War I and II. When the mines began to run dry in the 1960s, most companies packed up and left. In the end, however, that wasn’t what killed the town: The mining had resulted in extremely high levels of lead poisoning among residents, along with a spike in cancer rates, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to dub the town and its surrounding area the most contaminated place in America. The government began buying out residents’ homes in 2005, closing the town for good in 2009.
American photojournalist Seph Lawless has visited Picher several times over the years. The town is technically closed off, and for good reason—extensive mining underneath much of the town made the ground unstable and prone to collapse. “At one point, my foot actually fell through the ground as a huge sinkhole began opening up and I jumped to safety,” Lawless recalled. “There’s an eerie silence as I walked around the ghost town alone. I didn’t hear birds or see any signs of life—it was surreal.” The wind blew tiny bits of rock against his face. Known as chat, this fine gravel is a byproduct of zinc and lead mining, and huge mounds of it ring the town like a mountain range.
The photos reveal a desolate town, made up of a handful of dilapidated buildings that line a road of cracked asphalt. The clouds are threatening, hanging low and dark against the sky. But the interiors are equally apocalyptic: Brightly patterned clothes are hung up, left behind by a previous tenant—a reminder of the residents who were paid to move out of the town. In one abandoned front yard, a lone wicker chair remains.
Lawless hopes that his work will bring wider attention to the devastation. “I think people look at America, and we look at the skyscrapers and New York City, and we think America is great,” the photographer explained last March. “And we are a great country—I love my country to death, I really do. But hiding in the shadows [are] crumbling areas of my country that I want people to not forget about, too.”
From the mid-1990s through the late 2000s, the Irish economy experienced a growth period so ferocious, it was dubbed the “Celtic Tiger.” The housing market was particularly brisk: Homes were being built in unprecedented numbers, at a per-capita rate four times higher than that of the United States. Then, in 2007, things started to go south: The bubble burst, and properties built on cheap, rural land could no longer be sold; sometimes, the investors were so broke that they couldn’t complete the projects.
Thus, Ireland came to be littered with thousands of so-called “ghost estates”—by 2011, they numbered more than 3,000. Among them, 621 housing developments were, at most, only half finished or occupied. (Since then, the number has been dramatically reduced, according to a 2017 report.) Photographer and filmmaker Valérie Anex, who was born in Switzerland and is now based in Berlin, first encountered the phenomenon during a visit to her grandmother’s home in 2010.
The following year, Anex spent three weeks driving across northwest Ireland to photograph the ghost estates. It wasn’t hard to find them, she said—she simply followed the billboards on the highway advertising houses for sale. She also checked online, where outraged citizens were using Google Maps to compile lists of these empty housing developments.
It wasn’t an enjoyable experience. “Sometimes I wondered, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s so creepy,’” she recalled. “Every time I left one of these estates, I had this feeling of relief, thinking I’m so happy I’m not living there, I don’t have to spend any more time here.”
Yet there were (and still are) people living among these ghost estates—homeowners who bought their property at the peak of the housing bubble and can now only sell for a fraction of the price. “They are basically kept captive in this sad environment,” Anex noted. Although she encountered many of these people during her shoot, she didn’t include them in her series because, as she reasoned, “the system is not made for people. [The ghost estates are] a symptom of the capitalist economy going wild, going on credit; there was no real demand for these houses. These houses were not made for anyone.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that photographer Valérie Anex was born in Ireland. She was born in Switzerland.