Since Will Ellis was the first photographer that really sparked my interest in continuing to shoot abandoned places, I was nervous to send him an email. I was ecstatic when I received an email back, Will told me I could fire away with any questions that I had for him and he even took a look at my photos and asked me about a location he had tried visiting. In addition to answering my questions, his interest in my project and my photos meant a lot as someone who has admired his work for years. Below are the questions answered by Will Ellis as well as some of his photos taken from his website which is linked at the bottom of the page. Thank you Will!
Q: You have been to some fascinating places, but what is one place that has really resonated with you?
A: The one that stands out most is Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens. In addition to looking for remnants of the history of a location, I’m also looking to capture the passage of time and the often surreal way nature reclaims these spaces. At Creedmoor, the way that has manifested itself is unique, and visually stunning.
There’s been a large colony of pigeons living up there for the past 40 years and their droppings have accrued into these incredible formations, sort of like stalagmites in a cavern. It was absolutely disgusting, but oddly beautiful at the same time. I had no choice but to capture it as thoroughly as I could, because I didn’t intend on going back.
Q: Your photos are incredible and you manage to shoot in a way that captures every bit of the composition’s natural beauty as well as enhancing certain elements that are visually pleasing, what’s your editing process? And what camera/lenses do you usually shoot with? A: I shoot architecture for a living, and the approach is pretty similar. I always use a tripod, and stick to natural light whenever possible, using long exposures. Often I will bracket exposures and combine several into one image, sort of like HDR but the process is done by hand in photoshop.
Keeping vertical lines straight is one really basic, but essential, part of architectural photography. I use architectural tilt/shift lenses to achieve this, but it can also be done is post production. For my personal work, I like to use a limited color palette, which often happens naturally in abandoned structures, but I sometimes desaturate certain colors and bring others out to create a consistent feel for a set of images.
I use a Canon 5DS now, but most of the older images were shot with a Mark II. Camera, lenses, and processing are important, but you always have to start with a great subject. The most important choice you make is where you put the camera and what it’s pointing at. Something I learned early on is that it’s much better to come away from a location with 5-6 great images than 100 mediocre ones. That means being more selective with your choice of subject and taking the time to get it right.
Q: What is so powerful about the photos you take?
A: I think images of abandoned places always elicit a powerful reaction. Not everyone appreciates the beauty, but the fascination with ruin is something that dates back centuries, it’s just a part of what makes us human. It’s a simultaneous attraction and repulsion. I think by talking about the history and what these buildings represent, you can take that initial reaction and add new layers of meaning.
Q: Do you research before or after visiting/exploring a location?
A: I tend to familiarize myself with the history beforehand so I know what to look for, but most of the in-depth research happens when I’m doing the writing.
Q: At what point did you realize you wanted to make a book of your work?
A: I started the blog a few months into doing this, and knew pretty early on that I wanted to do a book, though I had no idea how to accomplish that. It’s a great feeling to put a lot of work into a project and have something to show for it that you can actually hold in your hands. The book was a great vehicle to get it out to a wider audience, and I had some great opportunities to meet and chat with people who responded to it.
Q: Have you had any moments where you seriously questioned why you do this? (Any near death experiences, run-ins with police, etc.)
A: I’ve made some poor decisions and have certainly had moments, especially early on, where I came close to being seriously injured or worse. I would often do this alone, which isn’t a good idea, though I always made sure someone knew where I was. These days I’m much more risk-averse, I don’t think I’d have the guts to do this all over again.
I’ve had a few minor run-ins with law enforcement but never been arrested, it’s the physical danger that always worried me more than the legal stuff.
Q: In your book you wrote about the NYC Farm Colony in Staten Island and said the only room left intact in one of the residence halls had collapsed by your next visit. Do you find and expect major changes to the buildings each time you visit again?
A: I don’t always revisit the same buildings, but whenever I do I can expect some big changes. These places are ephemeral, they are going to change one way or another. Unfortunately, if these places aren’t demolished or renovated, they will eventually collapse on their own. Vandalism will usually get to them first. It can be hard to see a location that was relatively pristine a year before covered with graffiti and garbage, and I have to accept the fact that I might have something to do with that, since a lot of people use the blog/book as a travel guide.
Q: Do you have a favorite “type” of place to explore and shoot? (hospital, school, hotel, etc)
A: I think the asylums are probably the most rewarding, because they represent an aspect of American history that’s so often forgotten, and so important to remember. So many institutions are in ruins today, and these images give us an opportunity to reflect on the past treatment of the mentally ill, as well as the problems that persist today, as many of those who would have been institutionalized in an earlier age are ending up in the criminal justice system, which isn’t good for anyone. Seeing the day rooms and dormitories where these individuals spent their lives, and the items they’ve left behind that tell their stories, it’s an unforgettable experience.