When Matthew Christopher enters an abandoned building, he looks for grand architecture in decay, and random stuff people left behind: chairs, shoes, suitcases, or even a roomful of suits.
“It’s very important for me to find things that give you a sense of why is was important to people,” said Christopher, who runs a photography website called Abandoned America. “But I like showing the space of the building.”
The fine-art photographer who has been documenting crumbling buildings for eight years has released his first book, “Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences.” It has richly composed shots of curved stairways tumbling with ceiling rafters, grand arches atop rotting floorboards, or rows of school desks covered with broken plaster.
Christopher’s interest in abandoned spaces branched out of his previous career in the mental health field. He visited infamous spaces like the Byberry psychiatric hospital, abandoned in 1987 and since taken over by squatters, vandals, and explorers drawn to its controversial past of systematic abuse.
“The thing that struck me there was, there were so many stories and so many important things we still have to learn about how we have treat people with mental illness, developmental disabilities,” said Christopher. “But also beyond that: the asylums were used to warehouse unwanted children, unwanted seniors, people with political views not in keeping with society. If you were a homosexual you could be put in an asylum.”
He was also struck by the austere beauty of the campus and its buildings. He sought out more, covering hidden places in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, going as far as Louisiana and Arizona to explore buildings.
Some of the places in Abandoned America are identified by pseudonyms, their locations not disclosed. When places get famous, they can crumble more quickly.
“For example one of the places that was very well known — the Tome School in Maryland — had a really bad fire that destroyed the administration building last June,” said Christopher. “It was arson.”
Christopher is, on one hand, a preservationist. What was lost when these factories and churches and hospitals were abandoned, he wants to keep.
On the other hand, he says preservation can suck the life out of urban exploring. Part of the thrill of going into an abandoned building is being in a place you were not meant to be in, a place that is not longer what it once was. Going into an abandoned building is like entering a museum where nobody tells you where to look.
“That’s a bit of a paradox,” said Christopher. “I want the buildings preserved, but there is something in preservation that strips the character of a place, sense of being a museum that’s not roped off – a sense of having a relationship with a place that is not defined by anybody else.”
Christopher says he gets permission whenever he can before he enters an abandoned space but sometimes he trespasses when he can’t find anybody to ask.