One of the things I typically hear in regard to the images in my Lost Americana documentary is that they are “hauntingly beautiful.” Given that fall is upon us and Halloween is right around the corner, what better time than now to talk about some of the more hauntingly surreal places I’ve photographed?
As I travel across the country taking pictures of mostly abandoned rural areas, one of the more common questions I get is whether I’m ever scared or creeped out. I’m standing there all alone, miles from any living person who would be able to hear my bloodcurdling scream. While most people don’t get into too much detail about it, their general point is, “Yeah, I don’t think I’d be comfortable going to the places you go to.”
In 23 years of traveling the backroads and less inhabited spaces of this great country of ours, I can say that I’ve had a few bone-chilling, hair-raising, fear-inducing experiences. Some were pretty stupid and self-induced, like the time I went about a quarter mile into an abandoned mineshaft in the Laramie Mountain Range in Wyoming. The mine was on a rarely used dirt road that ran over a gap in the mountains and was partially covered in snow—the next blizzard could be days away, not months. It was also before most college kids, including myself, had cell phones. There was no GPS locating me, or for that matter an ability to “check in” before I did something stupid so loved ones would at least know where to send the rescue team. The last phone call I made to anyone about my whereabouts had been in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, the night before.
Obviously I made it out. But in retrospect, that episode terrifies me. I went back to the location again in 2016, not to go in, but just for a stroll down memory lane. And I am happy to say that there will be no more 20-year-olds spelunking in that shaft, as it was covered with rubble.
What might actually be the most haunted place I’ve ever photographed while traveling is one of the most iconic symbols of prairie landscapes in the country. Often referred to as “prairie cathedrals,” grain elevators have been the subject of many of my photographs. This image was taken in Ardell, Kansas, just west of Dodge City, and coincidentally it happens to be the image most associated with my documentary. Something most people don’t know is that there is actually a second grain elevator at this location, and there have been two reported deaths at the site.
One of the wonderful consequences of shooting with a large format camera is that I typically spend a lot of time at one location setting up a shot—sometimes as much as 15 minutes before I actually trip the shutter release. I rarely just jump out, take a photo, and drive off. That’s plenty of time for my 4×5 camera to attract a lot of attention (you can read more about the camera in the about section of my website). Plenty of curious locals have pulled over to talk to the stranger with Illinois license plates. At the old Gano grain elevators that day, it was no different. A woman who lived down the road started chatting with me about the camera and the buildings. It seems her cousins owned the property that the buildings were sitting on and she knew a bit about them. According to her, two people, drifters of sorts, passed through the area at different times. One had tried to live in the elevator but froze to death over the winter. The other, as she put it, must have decided that Ardell was the end of the road for him. He committed suicide.
If you’ve ever been around one of these old vacant grain elevators, they do take on a spooky vibe. There is a haunting beauty to these ghostly figures that rise up in the night, a silhouette of days long gone yet still on the horizon. Standing next to one, even the gentlest wind creates a soundtrack of scary noises, from the loose pieces of tin façade clanging to the howling whistle of wind through broken windows and the cavernous storage shaft.
While I can’t say that I felt anything supernatural while I was there, I do know that when I find myself in that area, I stand a little farther away when I photograph that old elevator. I don’t want to be its next victim.
Besides dangerous exploration and the echoes of death, there is one thing that really frightens me when I’m out photographing, one I find myself staring at head-on as I make my way from rural town to rural town. It’s the empty storefronts on Main Street and beautiful homes and barns left to rot as rural America continues to struggle with an aging population and decline in overall population. I’d definitely say it’s haunting, but there is surely nothing beautiful about it.
Vincent David Johnson is a Chicago based photojournalist, filmmaker, and the person behind the Lost Americana documentary project. When he’s not working on Michigan Ave, chances are you can find him in rural America checking out a town you’re not going to see on a travel show. Follow his work at @LostAmericana.