My interview with photographer and author Johnny Joo

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

Find out more and order your books here:

Ohio’s Forgotten History Book 1 and Book 2 can be ordered together–save $5 and receive a limited edition photo print.

Johnny’s website: Odd World Studio

Johnny’s blog: Architectural Afterlife

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Creative Inspiration: Part 2 from Intensity Without Mastery’s Michelle Cole

How did we get here? Not here at Rust Belt Girl so much as here—writing, blogging, connecting? (Anyone else have that Talking Heads song running on repeat in their minds? You’re welcome.)

For me, it was my mom who was the reader in my young life, who made it okay to “waste” an hour or a day on a good book. She was my biggest fan, even when my writing hadn’t a prayer of reaching a larger audience than my immediate family. She made me feel like a writer—and sometimes a vote of confidence from someone you love is enough to begin to believe it, yourself.

As I emerge from my Thanksgiving Day food coma, I say thanks to memories of my mom and to everyone else who makes me feel like something of a writer.

Many thanks, in particular, to Intensity Without Mastery blogger and photographer Michelle Cole for this two-part collaboration. I’ve learned so much! (Please check out Part 1, here.)

For Part 2, I wanted to see where Michelle finds her inspiration, what sparks her creativity.

Michelle—what inspires you to take photographs, especially of your Ohio city? What do you shoot with?

I must first credit my parents with impressing me with the notion that hobbies are vital to happiness. My dad kept an aquarium and made pictures of ships with strings pulled around pins painstakingly positioned on canvas or velvet (there is a name for these sort of pictures that escapes me now; its popularity rose and fell alongside macramé). My mom painted and drew. She also read an ocean of genre fiction.

My dad had a significant interest in photography in the 70s. My parents’ bathroom did double duty as a dark room for a few years. My dad’s interest in photography was mostly confined to portraits of family members and some architectural photos. One of my earliest memories involves taking the elevator to the top of what was then the tallest building in Indianapolis, probably the National Bank Building. We went to the top so Dad could take a cityscape picture from that vantage point.

Like for so many Rust Belt families, the prosperity we knew in the 70s did not last, so Dad put aside his photography habit due to cost.

Despite that our fortunes rose and fell, the example of their hobbies endured. Creative pursuits had value. Eventually, my history of major depression intersected with this notion. When digital photography became widespread, I decided to try it because I wanted to see if I could develop a skill that I knew was not a total waste of my time. My parents taught me by example that all creative expression had inherent value.

Then I was struck by the idea that photography could remind me that life was worth living, that my life itself had value. The places I saw, my city especially, were a part of that value.

As I took more pictures of the places I had seen so often, I began to feel something akin to teaching a dying language. I was capturing scenes that should not be forgotten: this is how we lived, the good, the bad, the ugly . . .

I also have an enduring interest in nature photography. I feel serenity in documenting the change of seasons.

I shoot with three different cameras, a Nikon D5200, a Canon Rebel T6, and my cell phone camera (a budget LG V8). None of my equipment is expensive or super sophisticated. There is still much I should learn about the technical points of photography. My favorite shooting combo is my Nikon D5200 with a Nikkor 55-200 mm f4-5.6 VR lens.

What moves you to provide a short essay or story around your photographs?

I wish I had the time and consistent motivation to write about the pictures in every photography post on my blog. When I look at my pictures, I see shorthand for memories that I wish others could read. I suppose that great photographs past and present tell that story with no annotation necessary.

I feel like my inclination to write an essay to accompany a picture is a function of two things: time and depression. If my depression is flaring up, my picture posts have little or no text offered, and the writing is perfunctory or clinical in tone. If the text is short but optimistic in nature, I am simply too busy with work or parenting to write much more.

The photos I take of places in my city usually tap a rich vein of memory for me because I’ve seen them so often, and I really should offer an anecdote to accompany them.

Today I took a picture of a house near the downtown area that intrigues me with its longevity.

Lima house by Michelle Cole
Lima, Ohio, house by Michelle Cole

While this home has some striking Victorian details, its greatest distinction is being the last home left standing in its area. Every other home along that street for several blocks was taken by eminent domain for the construction of a new high school and stadium. I don’t know how this house escaped this dragnet that resulted in the razing of many aging homes and row houses in the vicinity. The powers that be made the school’s lawn large beyond reason to justify demolishing a problem public housing project that had been built in the 80s. This house reminds me that the place we call home stirs feelings of ambivalence.

At heart, I feel this project was like liposuction to this town; poverty and crime can’t be erased just by demolishing buildings and planting perfect lawns where they once stood. I wish some of the other houses had been spared. The perfect lawn and angled brick of the new high school are reminders that the Lima my parents and grandparents knew cannot be resurrected. At least we have this one home left from the old era.

Michelle—thank you for giving me a window into your world. Your personal journey captured in stunning images inspires me to keep growing by creating and connecting with bloggers like you. Anything else you’d like to say?

We live in a golden era of photography. Chances are you have at least one camera within reach almost all the time. No one’s life is just like yours. No one sees all of the places you’ve seen. What you’ve seen today could be gone tomorrow. Now is the time to share those images with the world.

Lima fall foliage by Michelle Cole
Lima, Ohio, fall foliage by Michelle Cole

Thanks again to Michelle Cole at Intensity Without Mastery for reminding us to keep sharing our visions in words and images. And don’t forget to visit Michelle’s site.

Do you feel you, too, are “teaching a dying language” by resurrecting memories of the past through your writing or photography?

Please share!