Thursday, March 31, 2011

in the name of art

Okay, I’m an artist, and I am dedicated to my craft, but quite honestly I have grown tired of breaking and entering.

In a perfect world, someone out there somewhere would somehow hear about my project, call me up and say with a smile in their voice “hey, you’re that photographer who’s documenting abandoned buildings aren’t you!? Come on over and photograph my old farm house!” This though, has never happened to me, and I’m beginning to think it never will. Despite my efforts to track down, write, call and ask permission of the owners (if I can figure out who they are) only once in all of the years that I have been working on this project has someone actually let me photograph a building on their property. Even then it took a lot of prodding, and in the end he didn’t even consider letting me go inside. Nope. No way. Not a chance. Even with a liability release I had to photograph from the outside, and if you know my work, you know that’s not of much use to me. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that far more often then not, I find myself jumping fences, being chased by home owners and climbing through windows to get the shots I need.

Yeah, that’s right, I’m sort of a criminal.

The images below were taken last Sunday inside an old schoolhouse on a hill overlooking the Russian River.

Perhaps I should tell you a story.

When the two weeks of storms that thoroughly soaked northern California and kept me from going out to photograph had finally passed last Sunday, I drove out to an unimaginably tiny town near the coast where about I had heard rumor of an old falling down one room schoolhouse and a house supposedly grown over by a mysterious sounding garden. Uh, jackpot! I had to go. When I showed up in the one street town I went into the coffee shop to ask the barista if she had any clues for me, well, and to get a latté of course. She wasn’t sure about the buildings, but the man standing behind me pointed to a home across the street, where apparently the man who owns the whole town resided.

So, I go. I ask a neighbor who is standing in his front yard pushing his son on a swing about the owner and he points to a house three doors down. I walk up the steps of the old house. As I walk, cautiously, I hear a whimpering of what sounds like a puppy. Just as I step my right foot on the deck it happens. A huge bulldog lunges with full force, mouth open complete with rage directly towards me. Snap! The chain catches the huge furious dog in mid lunge about six feet from my face. Oh-my-gosh was my heart thumping. With the dogs hair straight up on its back and the barking incessant, I realize that the dog is very securely chained up. Though my heart is pounding, I try to talk to it nicely, hoping it might calm down, and I might still get a chance at my shoot. That dog did not calm down. Short story long, I never did get a hold of the owner of that property and with such a scary dog on the porch any thoughts of trespassing onto that property were gone from my mind. I told myself I would try again another day. But next time, I would call up from the bottom of that particular porch.

Feeling incredibly defeated, but not completely helpless, and pretty jacked on caffeine from my latté, I continued driving west towards another small town located right where the Russian River and the pacific ocean combine. A friend of mine had told me she had discovered a schoolhouse there that was in pretty good shape and I thought I would go seek it out. I parked by the river and walked up a small winding street carrying three cameras: my Hasselblad, a wide angle pinhole with a 4x5 back and a Polaroid 250. I was determined to get something.

The schoolhouse was pretty amazing and in far better shape then I had imagined. I stopped on the street below it (right in front of the expected ‘no trespassing’ sign) and sat down my pinhole to make a few exposures. Examining the building and taking into account the waterfall that was rushing underneath it from the weeks of rain, I decided it could pretty much collapse at any given moment. Nevertheless, I asked a nice neighbor if there was another access point from which I could get a different angle on the building. Coyly, she told me that even though there was a ‘no trespassing' sign people went up there all the time, and that it would probably be alright if I wanted to explore a little just so long as I was careful.  Well this was a nice change to the way things usually go! So, despite the apparent danger of collapse I thanked her kindly and turned to walk up the saturated hill towards the crooked building. As I tern, she adds with an odd lightness in her voice “ Oh, just be careful because there is a mountain lion who lives up there on that hill. I haven’t seen it this spring but I saw it a few times last year.”  What!? “Uh… thanks”, I reply while mulling over my day’s poor luck with animals in my head. Up the hill I go though, and boy am I glad I did.

No mountain lions that I found, only beautiful green moss and ivy growing all over springs luxurious wetness. The windows were wired up, I'm sure to keep people like me out (and maybe mountain lions too.) The bathrooms (I'm assuming ladies and gentleman's separate rooms) were right behind the old school house.

All and all, it was a pretty fun day to be a photographer. 


  1. Gorgeous photos and fabulous story, Dawn! Your stories add so much to your already-great photographs!

    Aunt Carol

  2. Love this Dawn,good story, your pictures are wonderful too