I’m so thrilled to present this interview with Johnny Joo, a fellow Northeast Ohio native, whose photography* I’ve featured at the blog before. But this time, we get the stories behind the lens…
Johnny Joo is an internationally accredited artist, most notably recognized for his photography of abandoned architecture and surrealistic digital compositions. Growing up sandwiched between the urban cityscape of Cleveland and boundless fields of rural Northeast Ohio provided Johnny with a front row ticket to a specialized cycle of abandonment, destruction, and nature’s reclamation of countless structures. Since he started, his art has expanded, including the publication of four books, music, spoken word poetry, art installations, and videography.
Johnny, how did you first get into photography–and abandonment photography in particular?
I was an art student in high school, and photography was another art class I could take, so I took it to fill space with as much art stuff as I could–not thinking that I would like it as much as I did. I got super interested in the whole science behind it and being able to capture a moment in time that would not happen again. For one of the first projects, I photographed some empty rooms in the high school, and also photographed an old farm house. It reminded me of Silent Hill and other horror games and movies I enjoyed.
I thought it was a great subject for photos, and I loved the way nature wore it down to create something so dark and eerie, yet calm and beautiful. That’s the film photo of the empty class room [above]. I gave the rest of my film and binder to my photography teacher, so I don’t have anything else, but I did keep my favorite photo–and it’s the first photo I developed successfully.
I just kept photographing any abandoned or creepy historic place I could find (along with EVERYTHING else) and started sifting through papers in some of the old buildings and found so much history left behind.
I thought it was interesting to piece a life and history together–being able to know so much without ever having known any of the people beforehand.
They made for great stories, so I started my blog, Architectural Afterlife, in 2012 to share them.
It’s nearing Halloween. What’s the scariest experience you’ve ever had shooting a site?
The scariest experience? Well, it’s a bit of a long one, and you can read about it here.
Why do you think abandoned amusement parks are so creepy?
Amusement parks give off the creepy vibe most likely because they were formerly places of families, life, laughter and love and are now decrepit, rusting away, empty and quiet. You can’t help but feel weirded out by how such a huge place once so full of life could become so far gone.
I have to ask, Johnny, how many times have you been arrested for trespassing?
First, I’d like to say that I do not promote trespassing, as it is an illegal act. But, yes, I’ve been arrested for it a few times (3 to be exact). Here’s a story of one of those times. Though I’ve done some stupid things in the past, I’d like to state that finding the property owner and simply asking them to photograph the property can sometimes go over quite well, and there are plenty of resources to use to go about doing it this way.
Your new book series, Ohio’s Forgotten History, focuses on abandoned places in our home state–from old factories to hotels, from churches to amusement parks, from a sports stadium to Mike Tyson’s old mansion. What are a couple of coolest place you’ve shot?
They’re all so different, but I do love old abandoned greenhouses because they’re relaxing and smell nice. The adventure with each place is part of the excitement. The massive TB ward I visited in New York, though, that was pretty cool. Also an asylum in Maryland, where I was able to gather 25 ticks on my body and carry them all the way back to my hotel. Pure skill. (And here’s a sneak peek of never-before-seen photos of the La Salle Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, before its renovation. Check out Part 3 of the Forgotten Ohio series for more.)
I’ve written before about “ruin porn” on Rust Belt Girl. I feel like your work is different in that it honors the history of these lost places. How do you distinguish your work from “ruin porn?”
I guess if you look at it like porn vs. erotic art, it would be ruin porn vs. ruin art? Yeah, let’s go with that. I think that anyone who cares about preserving the history of these places is in the category of art. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible artists and photographers out there that create “ruin porn,” and I still love seeing the work.
For my photographer followers, what do you shoot with?
I have a few different cameras I have been shooting with lately. Mostly Sony a7r iii and a7r ii, but also Olympus e3 (my first DSLR), Minolta X-700 (first SLR), Mamiya 645, and numerous other film cameras, some with slight issues, and others not so much. Hey, I even shoot some random shots with my phone if I have nothing on me, but I usually do somewhere. Oh, I also have a NEX-7 that I am converting to infrared. Those can be found really cheap, and the little camera is a beast for the price.
In addition to photography, you present pretty extensive history lessons on these abandoned sites. What kind of work goes into researching and writing about these forgotten places? What’s one of the coolest interviews you’ve conducted?
It depends on the location. Sometimes a trip to the library is necessary, sifting through old archives of photos and newspapers. Other times it’s talking to people locally, or getting info through auditors’ sites and other online resources with historical archives (thank you technology!).
The Internet is great sometimes–even for community input via Facebook groups. I’ve had people in groups reach out and send me personal family photos or vacation photos from different places that are now abandoned. Those won’t be in archives anywhere, online or off. Other times, I have found some info inside the site, itself. Here are a couple of my favorite on-site interviews: the first in the old ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon, and the second in the abandoned village of Yellow Dog, Pennsylvania.
Can you expand on another one of the places in your book?
Yes, these are from an abandoned tuxedo shop in Youngstown, Ohio. See Book 3 for more!
Thank you to Johnny Joo for honoring forgotten places through his art–and for sharing his work with us.
*All photography by Johnny Joo; bio pulled from Johnny’s website
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