I’ve always been a fan of exploring abandoned farm houses. I grew up in southwestern Saskatchewan, which is an area of the prairies that had its boom well before I was born. The boom didn’t last long and was shortly followed by a whimper and a collective sigh as unlucky farmers high-tailed it back to city for various reasons. The farmers couldn’t take their houses with them, of course, so over the years the rural landscape gradually became saturated with more and more of what now seem like tomb markers to failed aspirations. This is all terribly depressing, I realize; but, if there is a plus side to all of this, it’s that there is a ready window into the past that can be crawled through where we emerge into the living room of history and, camera in hand, take some pictures.
Abandoned farm houses are a piece of history that you can walk through without all the inherent lameness and fakery that comes with seeing a museum restoration—and as a badge of authenticity, it comes complete with raccoon feces and more opportunities to earn yourself an appointment for a tetanus shot than rolling down a hill in a barrel full of rusty needles. What makes it worth it is that it also gives you a view of the people who lived there that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
The remnants left behind tell you things that the history books can’t. It’s a puzzle where the clues are so scarce that, whatever they are, their significance becomes massive. For example, in any regular context, a half dozen empty Cheez Whiz jars discovered in the basement would imply a family that enjoyed a bit of orange colored goodness on their toast in the morning. But, when it’s the only clue you’ve got—and with a touch of Sherlock Holmes-like ingenuity—it easily weaves into a story of an out of control addiction for cheese spread products, perhaps one that came between the eater and his family, wasting away at his finances, driving his wife to the now empty bottle of whiskey found in the kitchen and eventually into the arms of another man. The Whiz-binging anti-hero, stricken with grief, broke to the point of destitution and supporting his two children on his own, sits down his offspring and tells them after a reading of their favorite nighttime story “All Sails Set” that he must give up the farm because he spent their last bit of money on another crate of ‘the Whiz’—and also, “Mother ran away with Alonso, the skating teacher”. But I digress.
From a photographer’s standpoint, these old homes are fantastic. The light tends to have a strong contrast between light and dark, giving it that supremely spooky vibe. And some rooms, like the one pictured above, are lit in ways I couldn’t have imagined if I’d tried. This particular room was on the top floor of the home, and both the ceiling and the roof above had collapsed in, leaving 1×4 planks hanging like an awning with big stripes of light slipping through onto the walls. Given that these rooms were very small, and that I didn’t have a lense wider than 24mm with me, I shot this as I would an outdoor panorama by taking three separate photos and merging them afterwards in Photoshop. I also shot this handheld, which was admittedly pretty idiotic on numerous levels, and created unspeakable nightmares for me in post.
Why did I go handheld? Because I was alone in a house as solid as a fabergé egg and creepier than Sir Jimmy Savile in room full of pre-pubescent children. I wanted to get my shots and get the hell out of there, so I nixed the idea of a tripod from my mind and quickly carried on. Since then, I’ve come to my senses and started taking my brother along with me on these shoots. He helps carry the gear and we bring a rope in the event that I fall through the floor. What we plan on doing with the rope when I fall through I’m not entirely sure. The lesson learned: Don’t be lazy. Oh, and don’t be illogical. Jimmy Savile is far more likely to touch you than a ghost. With that said, he’s also dead, so you never know.
I often wonder if there will come a point where my own childhood home will look like these, with someone else walking through imagining the lives that took place between its walls. It seems unavoidable. These aren’t castles or marble mansions from the 18th century, after all. My childhood abode will lumber slowly back towards the earth with the rest of them, gradually returning itself to the landscape it sprang from. Try as some enthusiastic explorer might though, no amount of imagining can really put them back into my place as a child—even if they do find a few Cheez Whiz jars scattered in my basement.