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Arts & Culture

Looking At Abandoned Buildings As Art

Abandoned EK cover.jpg

Nashville, Tennessee-based photographer Jay Farrell looks at abandoned structures and rusted out cars differently than the rest of us. Where we might blight or garbage, he finds beauty.

Farrell has published a series of 12 photobooks of abandoned and forgotten places. His most recent book is called Abandoned Eastern Kentucky.

Reporter Eric Douglas spoke with Farrell to find out more about the book, his process, and what impressions he hopes to leave on readers/viewers.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: The book we're talking about is Abandoned Eastern Kentucky. You go out into the hinterlands, down back-country roads, and discover old abandoned buildings and cars. What prompted you to start this project?

Jay Farrel.jpg
Author and photographer Jay Farrell.

Farrell: Well, it started off probably 15 years ago, or even a little bit longer. I started bringing models to some of the old abandoned factories in Nashville, because it was an interesting canvas. It got to where I started enjoying photographing the buildings more than the people because there's no scheduling, there's no drama,

Douglas: When you're going out on these hunting trips, you're flying blind. You're just going off the beaten path.

Farrell: For the most part, it's just like “this road looks promising.” I'm trying to remember in that book if I had any firsthand knowledge of anything before I visited it, and I don't think so actually. On my last adventure, in Harlan County, a friend told me about Lynch and the company store. Other than that, it was all flying blind.

Douglas: What do you prefer to find? The architectural buildings? Or the houses or the cars? What are you looking for?

Farrell: I like all of it. Yesterday I went out about an hour east of Nashville. I don't really have preconceived notions, like, “I'm gonna find this, I'm gonna find that.” Some days, you might not find anything. It's just an exploration. And that's okay, too.

Obviously, I like the industrial grip of the factories and whatnot. But sometimes a farmhouse that has stuff left behind is interesting. It's a totally different feel from one to the other, and the roadside finds with the cars. Early in my publishing days, I never really did much history research. And now I find that it makes the whole experience three dimensional, not only for me, but for the readers as well. These aren’t history books, but it's kind of fun to dig into it and find out something about the area.

Douglas: At the start of every chapter, you have a short essay about your, your discoveries or remembrances from each day.

Farrell: I tried to make the essays take up no more than a page, but I do want to include some of the story.

Douglas: I was struck that there aren't any people in your book at all? Is that completely intentional, or is that just kind of the way things work out?

Farrell: It's really about the abandoned and forgotten, and it wouldn't have that life-after-people feel if there were people in it.

Douglas: It almost has a post-apocalyptic feeling to it.

Farrell: I've thought that for a long time. I think that's my biggest inspiration, just remnants of the past and also the texture and patina of the building. And that's something that only can be created with time. You can't go to Home Depot and buy that.

Douglas: I'm sure part of your credo is to “leave only footprints and take only photographs.”

Farrell: That's the reason why I keep the locations secret. Unless it's somebody that already knows that I will share a location with them, there's no need for them to ask. I have to trust that they're a responsible explorer as well.

Douglas: Some people would refer to this as poverty porn. You're photographing poverty to take back to the city and say “look at how these people live.”

Farrell: I would hate for somebody to think that. If it was right next to me, I would photograph it just as easily. I have done Memphis and photographed stuff in Philadelphia, even right here in Nashville where I live. The landscape of Eastern Kentucky added a cherry on the sundae for sure. And I'm hoping the book made that clear.

Douglas: It is certainly a defined region. You can say Eastern Kentucky and people know exactly what you're talking about.

Farrell: Someone might have some misconceptions. But the people I met were extremely nice. None of them had that thought about what I was doing. I think they're leery about production crews because they've painted them in an unflattering light and then left. But, I find that if you're curious about the area, they're happy to tell you. Obviously if you go there with the wrong approach, you could end up in some trouble, too.

The book is available through Arcadia Publishing.

This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.


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