American photographer Matthew Christopher has had an interest in abandoned locations since he was a child, but only started documenting his explorations about a decade ago when he began bringing a camera along. At that time, he worked in mental health, mainly at adult inpatient facilities, which led to his interest in the history of their predecessors, the asylums.
There was one in Philadelphia called Byberry or Philadelphia State Hospital that I heard quite a bit about. At that point it had been abandoned for somewhere around a decade. After reading so much about it I decided I wanted to see it firsthand and it changed my life. It is entirely different to read about something than to see it, and as I got hooked on finding other places and learning about them, I taught myself photography so I could share what made them unique with others.
Christopher’s research quickly lead to Abandoned America, a chronicle of some of the most incredible, strange, or otherwise fascinating abandoned places that he visited.
It’s part eulogy, part offbeat history, part exploration travelogue. I think these places represent a lot of things – from learning about our shared past to confronting issues that dog us in the present like deindustrialization, urban blight, and our poor record at preserving architecturally and historically significant buildings.
Christopher tells Resource Travel that his main motivation for his project was always finding new things he wanted to address through his exploration and photography. Some days it’s about confronting grief, loss, and depression, and others it’s a celebration of the transcendent beauty of architecture being reclaimed by nature.
If there was one thing I’d hope to achieve, I suppose it would be encouraging people to see abandoned spaces not as eyesores but as the treasures they sometimes are.
Some of Christopher’s favorite work now is showcased in his new book, Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream, for sale via this website or via Amazon. He hopes to have as many people struck, “as I have continually been, by how beautiful these spaces are, and how extraordinary they can be.”
What has been your most amazing experience since you started Abandoned America?
It’s hard to say because there have been so many. There have been places like the Randall Park Mall where I was tremendously excited to be granted access to photograph somewhere that I really wanted to see. There have been experiences where I nearly got injured, like the time a fire escape started to come out of a building when I was on the side of it.
In the new book, I talk about what it was like sneaking into a massive asylum to photograph it, and why one would do such a thing. It’s exhilarating to step into a new, special place for the first time and to know that you have it to yourself to photograph for a while.
There are almost too many places left on Christopher’s “bucket list” to actually make a list. But if he would make one, Ankgor Wat in Cambodia, Pripyat/Chernobyl in Ukraine and Gunkanjima Island in Japan would be on top.
You also enjoy speaking to a people about your work. What do your talks consist of?
I give several presentations, ranging from mental health history to ruins as they have been portrayed in art, but the main ones are a walkthrough of the places I’ve been to, how I got interested in abandoned locations, some of the dangers one might find in them, and what the importance of the subject is.
When you’re dealing with topics where you’re confronting tragedy and loss – and make no mistake, that’s what these places represent to many – it’s important to not just be a voyeur into the misfortunes of others, but to try to understand the context and gravity of what you’re viewing. Also, just as the creation of a building represents something to the society it was birthed into, so does the abandonment of a building. For example, when we close our schools, what does it say about our commitment to public education?
Any advice to whoever wants to follow in your footsteps?
The two most important pieces of advice for anyone going into an abandoned building are, in my opinion, to be careful and to be respectful. These places really are dangerous in ways you can’t always see or consider. People die in them. Any step you take could be the one that kills you or leaves you injured in a way that profoundly changes the rest of your life. For the most part, it probably isn’t worth the risk. And just because these places are abandoned, doesn’t mean that nobody cares about them or that it’s OK to loot or vandalize them. Leave them as you found them.
As to what gear Christopher uses, he tells Resource Travel it’s necessary to be able to move quickly, when doing what he does. So he travels as light as possible, with not much more than his camera, lenses and a tripod. He uses a Sony A7RII and Canon lenses he had already purchased for my previous camera body, a 5D Mark II.
I prefer a wide angle lens as I like giving a broader survey of areas rather than focusing on small details.
Everything you wanted to know about Abandoned America and more, can be found on Christopher’s website. His new book also has its own website, where you can also purchase Christopher’s first book, Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences. Ultimately, Christopher is also very active on social media platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook.