It all started when photographer Will Ellis came across an empty warehouse while wandering around Red Hook with his camera. It looked as though he might be able to just walk right in, and that’s what he did. While there wasn’t much in the way of buried treasure or sentient biology inside, the feeling of discovery delivered a jolt, which stuck with him. Soon afterward, he began seeking out similarly decrepit institutions, churches, and other uninhabited areas, and the exploration has culminated in a new book showing what he found.
“There are so many layers of meaning to abandoned places, it’s difficult to pinpoint why it is that people are so fascinated by them,” Ellis says. “For me, it’s definitely the atmosphere, the ‘haunted’ quality. There’s a sense of mystery to abandoned buildings, and the natural reaction is to wonder what’s inside and what happened there.”
From corroded staircases to mossy bricks and dust-coated graffiti, many of the places Ellis documents in Abandoned NYC, the book, and on the dedicated website, should look familiar to horror movie buffs as the settings for bloody murder. The sinister imagery leaves a lot to the imagination, but Ellis, who grew up on scary stories, also became interested in tracing the actual past of the places he explored as the project went on.
“Researching the asylums and institutions was the most eye-opening part of the process,” he says. “It’s an aspect of American history we so often forget and these places give us an opportunity to reflect.
Early on in the project, Ellis stuck with the most well-known abandoned places he could find since they were the first to appear on his radar. In the book, for instance, he includes many documented historical locations discovered in the New York Times archives, and in reports from the landmarks commission when a structure was landmarked or part of an historic district. Eventually, however, he began to improvise. As it became difficult to find any uncharted terrain through traditional research means, Ellis used Google maps satellite view in his travels to find spaces gone to seed that were truly off the beaten path.
Ellis’s travels even took him to North Brother Island, former home to Typhoid Mary, and one of the most inaccessible places in the city. He managed to get in by tagging along with another photographer for a day who had a well-established relationship with the parks department. Most of the time, however, attaining entry was far less dangerous than it is for the average skyscraper-scaling urban explorer.
“You’d be surprised how easy it is most of the time,” he says. “I can’t even climb a chain link fence, so if I can do it anybody can.”
Have a look at more of Ellis’s photographs in the slides above, and come to his event at the New York Public Library on Thursday, May 7.