Photogenic Ruins: The Hidden Truth Behind Abandoned Buildings

3 minute read

Photo credit: Matthew Christopher,

Photo credit: Matthew Christopher,

America’s buildings are changing.

As labor industries have become automated, warehouses, factories, and plants have shut down. Alongside them, asylums have become obsolete, as our healthcare system has pivoted toward hospitals and rehabs. So too, schools, as younger generations have fled the less densely populated areas where they grew up to find work. Across the American landscape, these, plus churches, transit stations, and even prisons lay abandoned, slowly but surely being reclaimed by nature. While the transformation of these sites is in some ways sad, their dilapidation has proven to be compelling subject matter for adventurous photographers.

Save for offering some shelter to the homeless, America’s crumbling edifices are largely unoccupied. But just because they are mostly empty doesn’t mean getting photos of them is easy. Snapping a perfect shot involves not only the risk of trespassing, but also the threat of injury. Rusty nails, loose floorboards, unstable staircases, and asbestos are just some of the myriad dangers taken on by those shooting a location for its decomposing beauty.

But the risk, to some, is worth it. To these photographers, there is beauty not only in what was presented during a ribbon cutting or in a residential brochure, but also in what that place was like after it was new. Way, way after. With red rust covering many surfaces and greenery growing through every crack and fissure in the floor, these places take on a new life.

Some hope that appreciating them in their dilapidated states will help give some of these buildings a second wind. Photographer Tracy Levesque, whose images capture abandoned sites in Philadelphia, hopes that her documentation of such places will “catch the essence of their former occupied selves to help motivate others to restore them.”

And there are options. Historically or architecturally significant sites can easily be transformed into community centers, art galleries, event spaces, or even new schools. Still, many people view these structures as an eyesore –- reminders of failed institutions, or past industrial pride now forgotten.

For photographer Matthew Christopher, who has published several books of his work under the title Abandoned America, respecting both the past and present lives of a building is crucial to his process, as his hope is that “no harm or change should come to a place” when he photographs it.

“A lot of people like to expose locations […] but seem to care very little for the enormous harm that can cause them,” Christopher says, noting that, once bored troublemakers become aware that buildings are abandoned, they often further decimate them through looting and vandalism.

But even those visitors who don’t intend to do any harm can still be disruptive –- most often to the squirrels, birds, and other forest animals that commonly set up shop as nature reclaims the manmade. Once, Tracy Levesque even found a litter of kittens.

“We took them out and found homes for all of them,” she says. “Now they live in loving homes instead of an abandoned building.”

Photo credit: Matthew Christopher,

Photo credit: Matthew Christopher,

Abandoned buildings find a new kind of life simply through being photographed. Despite all of their hazards and blemishes gifted by time, the unseen energy these places still contain is captured in the work of those with a discerning eye and an adventurous spirit. With every wall that crumbles, and every vine that sprouts up among the rubble, there is beauty to behold in seeing a building become its ghost.

“They’re somewhere between this world and the next, and there’s something that is sad but also rapturous about that transition,” says Matthew Christopher. “I think there’s an honesty about them that our image-conscious waking world can’t match.”