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.
Maybe old buildings are in my blood. For forty years, my dad worked as a draftsman and designer for structural engineering firms, drawing up plans by hand. On trips into Cleveland for the art museum or bagels, Dad would point out the buildings he’d had a hand in. His job: ensuring they would stay standing.
So, it feels like a personal affront to watch buildings–especially beautiful historic places–go to ruin, abandoned.
I’ve talked on the blog before about “Ruin Porn,” a type of photography that glorifies falling-down structures, often in post-industrial places, like my native Cleveland. I’ve said before, that to me Ruin Porn looks like the American Dream on its knees with no dreamer in the scene. (I wrote a three-part essay you can read here, here, and here.) So, what do we do? How to salvage falling-down places?
Rebecca here–happy to highlight the work of Rust Belt photographer Johnny Joo, who captures the remains and the history of historic landmarks–like Buffalo, New York’s Central Terminal, an art-deco jewel of an old train station.
I have a soft spot for Buffalo, the Rust Belt city near where my mom was raised and where much of her side still lives. If our winters in Cleveland were tough (and they were), winters in Buffalo were tougher. This seemed to increase not only my relatives’ struggles, there, but their grit to overcome them, along with their infectious wit and humor to laugh through them.
Joo’s type of photography is called “Abandonment Photography,” but by recalling these places, he resurrects them, in a way, as he resurrects wonderful memories for me. Certainly, this Buffalo landmark should not be forgotten, and I will follow its story, as the city around it is enjoying a renaissance.
Joo reports, “In October of 2017, the World Monuments Fund selected Central Terminal as part of it’s 2018 World Monument Watch List – one of only two selections from the United States, and one of 25 selections total.”
Buffalo’s Central Terminal was an active train station from 1929-1979. The structure was built in Art Deco style, designed by architects Fellheimer & Wagner for the New York Central Railroad. The main building stands 15 stories (271 feet) tall. The station had sat abandoned and almost forgotten for years, but with the incredible work of an amazing preservation group, new life has been brought back through this incredible piece of Buffalo history. Most of the photos shown below show the derelict, decaying areas of the former station. I will update this piece later with photos from inside the area undergoing renovation.
Abandoned East Central Station Buffalo New York
Abandoned East Central Station Buffalo New York
Construction of the station took place from 1925-1929. By the late 19th century, the city of Buffalo was home to several railroad stations, but people desperately wanted a single union station to be constructed. Plans were…
The stadium had hosted over 1,500 football games for the high schools in Akron, as well as for Ohio High School Athletic Association playoff games. The Cleveland Browns had also used the stadium for 19 preseason games over the years.
Rebecca here: Photographer Johnny Joo is “Preserving History Through Imagery” at his site, Architectural Afterlife. You don’t have to be a Northeast Ohio native (like Johnny and this gal) to appreciate his stirring photography. Much more than capturing abandoned sites, he provides the history behind the sites–separating his work from the likes of “ruin porn,” in my opinion.
What do you think?
What’s on your plate today? Photography? A good summer read? I can’t get enough of discussing A Gentleman in Moscow. Otherwise, I’m buried under work-writing but hope to surface soon!
An island in the rust belt,
once perhaps a wayward
rhinestone jewel and now?
Some parts have seen
better times and some
have seen bitter times,…
…some hang around
like the ghosts of a
history of light and dark,…
…and some don’t see time
at all, but time sees them
Like a rag or a bag snagged
on a stick in the river, some
parts moving, some standing still,…
…a city that seems at
times not to know where— or even when—it is.
“Watching Time” poem and images by Johnny Crabcakes at A Prayer Like Gravity
Rebecca here: thank you, thank you to Johnny Crabcakes at A Prayer Like Gravity for these fine photographs and words. Together, they provide a window into the Rust Belt city of St. Louis, always changing, ever still. Please visit A Prayer Like Gravity for much more.
I’ve said before that my lack of talent with a camera has turned out to be a blessing. Wanting to feature regional photography here at Rust Belt Girl, I’ve turned to the experts–like Johnny Crabcakes; along with my fellow Northeast Ohio native, Johnny Joo, who specializes in abandonment photography at architecturalafterlife.com; and Michelle Cole, who posts her thoughts and photography at Intensity Without Masteryand who shared with Rust Belt Girlhere and here what her life is like today in Lima, Ohio.
Want more photography? Check out my handy-dandy Categories.
Are you a photographer in a Rust Belt-ish place? I’d love to hear from you!
Go ahead and call it nostalgia. Or rose-colored glasses, cockeyed Midwestern optimism, or plain delusion. (Or, as snow remains in the forecast well into April here in my adopted southern home, call it willful reversion.) Whatever.
I dream of childhood summers in Ohio.
Summer, especially, felt like a gift from the heavens after enduring a frigid (Daily Prompt) winter in the Snowbelt and a five-minute spring that brought little more than a white Easter, a lackluster Maple Festival, and mud.
Summer, glorious, oblivious 1980s summer brought us SeaWorld.
Yep, that SeaWorld–not in California or Florida but in Ohio. No joke. The smallest of the SeaWorld parks, at 50 acres, SeaWorld Ohio opened in 1970 and was located on Geauga Lake, where 1950s-esque good-guy-gets-the-girl acts were performed atop pyramids of water-skiers. (How I wanted to be one of those girls!) Then there were the animals: the sea lions show, the jumping dolphins, the otters who were made to “talk” with piped-in chipmunk voices. The shark and penguin encounters. And, of course, the stars: Shamu and Mamu, the killer whales.
This was long before your average theme park attendee called them orcas or gave a thought to the health and socialization of large animals in captivity. Zoos still thrived; the circus hadn’t died.
By 2004, SeaWorld Ohio was basically abandoned. You can view eerie before and after photos taken by former SeaWorld Ohio animal trainer Nico Maragos.
More of a thrill-seeker? Geauga Lake amusement park was right across the lake from SeaWorld’s water-ski shows and called to us with her skyline of roller coasters. Ohio-based photographer Johnny Joo has captured stunning images of the theme park (like the one at the top of this post), which closed in 2007.
I’ve included Rust Belt photography on my blog before, but Joo covers not only abandoned places of work but of play.
I’ve also railed against abandonment photography, sometimes called ruin porn, for forgetting the people the places left behind. (Of course many of us did leave these places behind, in droves, often for warmer climes.) Still, Joo’s mission is exactly the opposite for his blog Architectural Afterlife: Preserving History Through Imagery. I hope you’ll check it out.
Are you a Rust Belt photographer with images to share? Let me know! Just summer-dreaming?
For my next two posts here at Rust Belt Girl, I am honored to present Michelle Cole, a fellow Ohio native, who blogs at Intensity Without Mastery. I first stumbled upon Michelle’s photographs of the city where she lives: Lima, Ohio. I have posted before about abandonment photography, or “ruin porn,” as leaving me cold. Michelle’s photography, on the other hand, struck me with its depth of feeling, and I knew I had to learn more about the woman behind the lens. She has agreed to guest post here at my blog, and I’m so grateful.
As Michelle will tell, life in Lima—like in many Rust Belt places—has seen its share of hard times: leaving and loss. There are also sweet spots.
Between her photographs and candid backstory, Intensity Without Mastery moves me with its intense truthfulness:
My life was a mess of attrition and despair until the Recession. As the economy crumbled, I got better, and I’m uncertain why. … In this blog, I explore my sometimes incomplete recovery from mental illness. While I am candid about this aspect of my health, I also explore a hodgepodge of interests, such as photography …
Michelle describes for Rust Belt Girl life in Lima, Ohio:
Lima is situated near the midpoint between Detroit, Michigan, and Cincinnati, Ohio [cities along the north and south edges of America’s post-industrial heartland]. My family has deep roots in the Lima area, but I did not move here until I was nine years old, in 1981. I did spend a total of five years outside Lima in my late teens and twenties, pursuing my education, first, and starting a family, second. By the way, both of these ventures were failures in a conventional sense. I didn’t get a degree, and I became a single parent, which begins in heartbreak unless that’s the outcome intended from the start. I didn’t truly feel at home in Lima until I had failed to create the sort of life I envisioned for myself when I was young. I think that sentiment is key to describing what Lima is like.
The longer I live in Lima, the more I get the sense that this city is full of people who once wished they had landed somewhere else more replete with wealth and growth, somewhere the countryside is perpetually bulldozed to make way for more homes, stores, and schools. Reality eventually tempers these dreams for those who don’t have the skills or wealth to move away.
There’s a lot of healthy cynicism in those who inhabit the “post-fantasy” world of surviving in Lima. I found a perfect portrayal of it in a now-old article from The Onion (which, by the way, started in the bleeding edge of the Rust Belt: Madison, Wisconsin) called “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size.” This little satire is a clever critique of the conventional American urge toward that which is big, bright, and new.
It is necessary to reject those sort of values to be happy here.
The city of Lima has lots of reminders of its past glory days, from abandoned homes to empty or underused factories on the outskirts of town. Nowhere is this more evident than our downtown area. Where once finely dressed shoppers and business people trod the streets, now there are people who were broken and couldn’t quite be put back together. That’s another reason I feel at home in Lima.
I am one of those broken people, and when I am feeling well, I am proud of all I do. When I am depressed, I feel a bit resentful of rising to the occasion despite having some disabilities. I am hearing impaired. I have arthritis and spinal stenosis, along with a long history of clinical depression that’s been treated with varying degrees of success. This situation is not rare in people who’ve stayed in Rust Belt towns like Lima that are long past their prime. I encounter so many people who are trying to get by despite their medical problems. It’s so common that at times qualifying for disability benefits is like crossing a finish line, a mission accomplished instead of a surrender.
I’d be remiss not to mention that there is an enduring vitality to Lima despite its long-term decline in wealth and population. There’s a longstanding effort to revitalize the city and improve our local schools. We have a local symphony and community colleges.
There’s also the treasure I see in the fundamental dignity of all people as they go about the business of living, whether rich or poor, old or young.
No matter how cynical or depressed I feel at times, I see a beauty and notice innate intelligence and wit in every person I encounter. When I drive through the city of Lima or walk some of its streets with my camera in hand, I often think of the following lines from Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:
“There was never more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,