Living in central Wisconsin means there is a lot of space and farms, but because of the way farming has been destroyed for individuals and families, there are a lot of abandoned farms and homesteads. It’s sad, but they make for some excellent photos.
Many photographers automatically go for a black and white image and I do, too, but sometimes it does’t fit the mood. Some of that comes from the light and weather conditions when I go out. As many other subjects, overcast or cloudy skies work pretty well and I often head out when it’s like this. I find the flat light lets my photos show the structure and surroundings of a ruined building a bit stronger than direct light. When I want to emphasize those two things I’ll often choose monochrome to help. The shot below is a good example. A one-story cabin with the roof caved in, but with still discernible windows and doors – black and white lets a viewer focus on those and not the riot of saplings that have taken over what must have been the yard.
Not all days are overcast though and when it’s bright and sunny out we have a bit more texture to show and also the contrast between the mood in the scene and the past lives that must have once centered on the abandoned house. It almost makes it cheery to look at until you realize that possibly someone’s hopes and dreams have died hard. This next cabin’s missing doors is a focal point and there is enough color to showcase it. Also the colors are so complementary that it makes for a really harmonious image. Overexposing a stop keeps the snow white, too, and so even though I experimented with black and white I decided color was the way to go.
To trespass or not to trespass?
I’m always tempted, but most of the time I don’t approach or enter any of the abandoned buildings I find. Mostly out of craven fear – I don’t want to get caught. Also out of respect. If there is a sign saying keep out (like the one at the end of my driveway) I take it seriously. Not only are there the property owner’s wishes to be respected, but there’s liability, too. I can imagine how damaged and dangerous these places are and I have no wish to wreck myself or cause the owner to have a big bill because of my stupidity.
It is tempting though and I will get closer when it makes sense. In the case of this barn, if it had been in the company of a ruined house and outbuildings, I’d have gone closer. But it was the only thing like this on an otherwise totally normal, and inhabited farm. Poo.
Because there are so many abandoned homes up this way I sometimes pass them all the time without taking any pictures. With this next one I’ve been promising myself that I would stop when the light was right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just felt a little silly stopping right on the side of a road I travel once or twice a week. But then one day I was coming home with the whole rig in the car and the afternoon light was pretty perfect.
In terms of processing, I did tweak these a bit more than I normally do so I could set the right mood. I wanted something a touch brooding…mostly because of that awesomely scary tree. The clouds helped, but they weren’t quite dark enough so I brushed them a little in Lightroom to bring up the drama. I also tweaked the magenta slider down a bit toward green, keeping it even between the two shots which are different views of the same farm. To me it’s important to keep the processing the same with a series of images that you want to present together. Lightroom has some shortcuts that are handy for this, too, like letting you apply the exact same set of adjustments from one image to another. Just finish up or click on a previously processed image in the develop module, click directly to another image and then hit the Previous button in the lower left. It will apply the changes you made to the first image to the second one. From there you can keep it or do more to it, even undo something like a crop that doesn’t work. It makes things really easy to keep the same look and feel with multiple images.
Then there’s luck. I went back to photograph this barn on an overcast day. Even when I got there and climbed the snowbank the light was pretty flat. Then for a brief few moments the sun broke through the clouds a little bit. Just enough to bring up some texture and shadows. It was all I could do to keep from jumping up and down.
Oh if walls could talk.
So many questions go through my head when I photograph abandoned houses. Who first built them? Who lived in them? What did they do? Were they happy? Sad? Was there drama? Why did they walk away? Was there a tragedy?
I’ve always had an idea in the back of my mind to collaborate with a writer who could work with my photos and create a context for them. A story. Sure I can imagine, but I’m no storyteller. Just look at this next one. I found it on a main road in one of the segments of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It’s a single story cabin with chinked-log construction. I can’t tell if it was ever wired for electricity. The ladder knocked me out and I so wanted to trespass, but I didn’t. Did a trapper live here? A logger? A recluse? A mad bomber? Even today this is a pretty remote location despite the two lane road going right by it.
Not everything might be actually abandoned, like this next little cabin. I think it’s something used seasonally, maybe just for hunting. When I found it it was snowbound and pretty lonely looking. It reminds me of a tiny maple-sugar house with that little bit there on the roof. I love the flag in the window (which still has glass in it like the others you can see).
This next one made me turn around, go back and put on my gaiters so I could wade through the snow. The critter tracks are a bonus. I love the holes in the sagging roof; something difficult to show without snow. Again, I wondered if this was a primary residence or just a hunting cabin or something. Like another cabin that I’ll feature in a post all its own, this little shack wasn’t face on to the main road, but turned sideways as if offering the cold shoulder to the world.
I think this last one might have been a carriage house or garage. At first I thought school or meeting house, but those doors would be really strange for either of those and given that the doors don’t seem to slide open large enough for vehicles, I don’t know what it is/was. It’s all alone on the corner of two back roads and is sheltered by this L-shaped line of pine trees. The old roof and the new roof are a bit of a conundrum. Did someone start to restore it? Do they use it in good weather? It was all snowed in so it’s obviously not in use during the winter. I love the symmetry of it.
I will be posting a few more pieces with abandoned places and things, but spring fever has caught me. I’m a bit weary of the monochrome world out there and I’m dying for some greenery. It won’t happen for weeks though and so I will try to get out and enjoy the season as it is. Stay tuned for longer post about one particular little lost cabin. This time I went inside!
Who can pass up a barn photo? Not me and luckily I live in the land of farms, present and past. Slowly I’m coming to notice things that indicate a barn is still in use (like a beautiful new roof) even if it might be idle at the moment. Predominant is the Prairie Barn style. My initial suspicion was that they were constructed with volume in mind – winter feed storage for those hundreds and thousands of cows and I’m right. I don’t have any photos yet, but some barns have rounded roofs. The shots in this post all mimic that shape, but with two flat slopes typical of the Gambrel style. Maximizes internal volume, but sheds snow easily.
In terms of processing I don’t have a favorite style or automatic setting, although cranking the clarity slider past 30 seems to give these images a hardness that I think works given the season. Even though there is a limited color palette sometimes, I’m not going to black and white often. The image above worked ok in monochrome, but slightly lowering the vibrance and boosting the saturation worked better in my opinion. For the most part the light is flat, but occasionally I get a nice late afternoon wash of sun that gives a less bleak feel to images, like this gorgeous baby in Gleason –
Barns are interesting for what they are themselves, but also for what surrounds them whether it be other buildings (like this silo and that shed) or the fields in which they stand. While I do occasionally wade into a snowbank with my gaiters on, for the most part I’m pretty limited as to composition and approach. I do try to eliminate distracting things like telephone poles and lines, but it’s not always possible and so the rest of the image has to be captivating.
Many are stained with a neutral or brown shade that weathers beautifully, but red is an ever-popular color and whether it pops or fades, it’s arresting. Color saturation really depends on the individual barn. The River Valley Farm barn is already faded and worn, so I amped up the reds, but muted the greens somewhat and kept the overall color temperature on the cool side. For this abandoned horse farm (below) I kept the overall tones warmer and boosted the overall saturation levels a little.
I think as I gain experience photographing these rural behemoths I will have better images. Images that convey the importance, beauty and rugged functionality of the humble barn. I know I’ll keep on pulling over, turning around, going down unknown roads to try and try again.
When I lived in NH, I photographed old cemeteries lot. They’re some of my favorite places and you could hardly go a mile without passing one, complete with stone walls, some gorgeous gates and mausoleums. Alas, Wisconsin only became a state in 1848 and so consequently not many are old enough to have the same artistry, charm and character. What is a photographer to do?
We have tons of it here, especially in the northern part of the state where barns, homes, cabins and other structures are just left to molder on their own. Jackpot. So I’ve decided to put together a series of what I hope will prove to be interesting photos and posts. Mostly it’s old houses and barns, but I did find an abandoned church not far from here as well, a welcome surprise.
Right now, with snow on the ground it’s a lot harder to get up close to these lonely buildings and in some cases it’s probably ill-advised. I’ve never been one of those photographers who ignores no trespassing signs or walks into rickety and possibly dangerous structures, but I will when it make sense.
Also the nature of having to stay off property kind of limits my angles, perspectives, composition and framing so I will be experimenting with processing techniques to add some flair and distinction to what could become a pretty dull set of repetitive images.
Any interesting stuff that happened while shooting, I’ll also tell you about. Like with that sepia house up there, a nice fellow Subaru driver stopped to make sure that my hazard lights didn’t mean I was stuck or in trouble. When I told him what I was doing, he advised a monochrome approach and he was right.
Locations are going to be harder. Many towns up this way are unincorporated and it’s hard to tell where one begins and another ends. Boondocks, man, boondocks. I may have to confine things to roads and counties since those are easier to ID.
With no leaves on the trees, old buildings stand out more, but not always. They still hide. I passed this old log cabin a few times after the leaves fell without seeing it at all. Then the snow on the roof – a dead give away! I didn’t have gaiters on to go in and explore, but I definitely will when the snow melts. Now I know where it is, its summer camo won’t keep me away.
One of my favorite things about the woods is finding the unexpected. Around here conservation land usually has a past, meaning it hasn’t always been conservation land. A lot of it has been logged, farmed, lived on, mined and used for lots of other things, often yielding up its secrets decades later. This bridge isn’t necessarily one of them, but the nearby stone loading bay full of trash from before the days of plastic is. Passing by on the road you’d never know either was there unless you looked.
And what would a trek through the woods on old roads be without an abandoned car?
The roads leading to this site haven’t been passable in decades, but enough of them remain so you can imagine a little of what it was like. I love finding stuff like this even though I’m a nature girl at heart. Maybe it’s because of the way nature reclaims its ground. How it weathers, ages and reduces in grandeur the works of man. Except for those glass bottles. Those will probably last forever.
Winter is a great time for showing us things we might ordinarily not see at all. I have no idea how many times I’ve passed this house, but I’m sure it’s dozens. Finally the other day I noticed it. I had to laugh though because it’s about 50 feet from the edge of a pretty busy road. I’ve even gone past it in winter and not seen it. Funny.
Even though the light was less than ideal, I just had to stop. It’s a funny mix of things, this little house. It looks as if it were originally built as one big room and had some additions tacked on. The windows have different latches and there is a mix of shake and clapboard siding.
Next door there is an occupied house whose resident had snow-blown a path over to this ramshackle pile and I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I felt watched the whole time I shot. I fully expected someone to come talk to me (like when I shot the abandoned Texaco station in 2009) and question what I was doing (duh…can’t you see I’m baking pies???), but no one did.
I am always respectful though. I don’t attempt to get inside unless it’s very easy to do so and with this little cabin, it wasn’t. Just above this doorknob is a padlock. Severely rusted and probably no longer really useful, but I respected its intent. Too bad it was in a patch of sunlight and too harshly lit to make for a good image. Same with the interior, which had some lovely plaster work and moldings. In softer light it would have worked, but as it was I didn’t get any usable images. I do like this shot of the underpinnings though.
It looks like the heat source was one stove originally, expanding to two of them with the addition to the left. Also it looks like it was never wired for electricity. Sometime recently, but not very recently, it was used as a storage shed for someone who did a lot of crafts (buckets of pine cones, starting to disintegrate) and maybe had a roadside nursery (lots of plastic plant pots – hundreds of them, stacked inside and a garden hose).
I wish places like this could talk. For example, I’d love to know what was leaning against the far right wall by the chimney. It looked like the frame of a wagon or sleigh, but without the chassis it was hard to tell. Ah, life’s little mysteries.