Viewing the Past, Present and Future Simultaneously

Meet Chris Luckhardt, an adventure photographer who travels the world to photograph abandoned places and the night sky, whose work has been featured by ABC News, MSN, The Weather Channel, The Daily Mail, Buzzfeed, TotallyCoolPix and many more. 

Stars of the Very Large Array by Chris Luckhardt

Stars of the Very Large Array by Chris Luckhardt

1. In your artist's statement you state, "Abandoned places are a reflection on our society; they represent where we’ve been and what our future holds. They serve as a warning of mistaken paths and as a message for future possibilities." What inspired you with this idea?

One night, shortly after the events of 9/11, I asked my father about the potential lasting effects of the terrorist attack. We had a long, wide-ranging conversation touching on the topics of war, politics, economics, and even our immediate and extended family history. As the conversation came to a close, I commented about its depth and how much I felt I learned from him. He summarized the conversation by stating, “You can’t know your future without knowing your past.”

In hindsight, I believe the phrase strongly resonated because it was our last in-depth discussion; he died from a sudden stroke a few weeks after the conversation.

I’ve since expanded on his words and applied them to my documentation of abandoned places. It’s an attempt to summarize, in a simplified phrase, the topic’s socioeconomic complexities and emotions.

The statement also alludes to a secondary and somewhat abstract concept. The experience of exploring and photographing abandoned places has a timeless quality. It can often feel like viewing the past, present and future simultaneously. I’ve often defined it as “living history”.

Whether I’m standing inside an abandoned school, office, church, hospital or factory, my thought process is identical; I’m thinking about the building’s history, memories made within that have become forgotten to the sands of time, the building’s current condition, and possible ideas for redevelopment and reuse. I’m thinking about the economic and social factors of the past, present and future.

Holley High School's Auditorium by Chris Luckhardt

Holley High School's Auditorium by Chris Luckhardt

2. If, as they say, art is a reflection of society, what societal values or norms do you see your photographs reflecting?

My photos often provide a glimpse into eras of irresponsible economic and social management across multiple levels of government and industry. However, the photos can also provide a gateway to learning about civic action potentially becoming a force for positive action and change.

For example, the Love Canal disaster in America occurred due to reckless industrial waste management and negligent government interaction. An entire neighbourhood and school in Niagara Falls was developed over an existing 22,000 ton toxic waste dump. Eventually, local residents began experiencing severe health problems that were attributed to leaking waste from the toxic dump.

Civic action, spearheaded by local resident Lois Gibbs, lead to financial compensation and relocation for affected families. Most of the neighbourhood’s buildings were abandoned for over a decade until a mass demolition in the 1990s.

3. To me, your photographs have a political subtext. Have, and if so which, political and economic politics or current events shaped you and your work? For example, I'm wondering what you thought of the global recession of '08 and how that may have impacted your work?

The catalysts for most of the abandoned places I’ve explored and documented were major recessions occurring prior to 2008 and their subsequent economic and social effects. The global recession of 2008 hasn’t had an immediate impact on my work.

I grew up in a lower-middle class family on a small farm in southwestern Ontario. I watched my parents and neighbours struggle to sustain their livelihoods as farming became increasingly economically challenging. Some families were forced to sell their farms; the land was purchased solely for agricultural use and the buildings became abandoned.

One side effect of this struggle is urbanization. I spoke with a retired farmer in a small town in Idaho about an abandoned bank I was documenting. He shared the story of the bank, the town and his kids “moving to the big city” to find work because they couldn’t find jobs with decent wages “out here in the wilderness”. There was an obvious forlorn tone to his voice during the conversation.

In addition, many of my parents’ friends and co-workers in the manufacturing industry became unemployed as a direct result of the recession during the early 1990s. Many factories and warehouses closed and the buildings eventually became completely abandoned.

Personal note: I can remember my father, who worked as a Maintenance Millwright while also being a full-time farmer, doing over 400 hours of overtime one year due to layoffs and plant closures.

Redford High School by Chris Luckhardt 

Redford High School by Chris Luckhardt 

4. When you're looking through the lens of your camera at a school that has been abandoned, what, beyond getting the right shot, is going through your head?

Any time I pick up a camera, I’m trying to be instinctive; I attempt to put my technical skills on auto-pilot while striving to capture an emotionally compelling photo that will reveal the abandoned place’s architectural beauty in tandem with it’s economic and social narrative.

My process is akin to musicians with great technical skill and theoretical knowledge who attempt to improvise with unfiltered emotion. Technical skills simply become a wire for emotional electricity to flow through. My goal is to create the least resistant pathway that will reveal a deep, emotional connection for the viewer to a human interest story related to the object in the photograph.

I try to remove myself from the process as much as possible so my own thoughts won’t interfere with the existing story in front of my lens. However, there’s no hiding the ghosts of my own school memories; they’re always present in the back of my mind while exploring an abandoned school.

5. Behind a piece of art, there is always a narrative. What is the story that you're trying to tell through your photography?

Primarily, I try to reveal the existing economic and/or human interest stories of each abandoned place’s past, present and future.

Additionally, I enjoy showcasing the adventurous aspect of traveling around the world and exploring abandoned places. I’m so grateful to have received many messages from people telling me that my work inspires them.

6. What emotions do you hope people will feel when viewing your pictures?

I hope viewers will feel the same overpowering emotions I do while I’m standing behind the camera, experiencing the scene, and then capturing the moment. However, I know it’s impossible because my best photos haven’t come close to capturing the surreal awe and wonder I experience while being in these amazing abandoned places.

Given that, my wish is that viewers will experience a sense of optimism and hope; that these buildings have been given (in many cases) a chance for one last timeless breath courtesy of a photograph.

7. How have your travels and the places you've seen and photographed shaped your own worldview?

Traveling in Asia, Europe and across most of English speaking North America has revealed how humanity is as unique as it is similar. There are countless global variations of culture and language. However, most of humanity has the same set of goals; we want to provide adequate shelter, food and security for ourselves and our loved ones while having some fun. We’re all different but we’re all the same. We’re all in this together.

8. Your work reminds me of Contemporary fine art photographer Sean Galbraith's work Abandoned Institutions. Are you familiar with his work, and what other photographers inspire you?

My work is a contradiction; I’m not attentive to the photography industry or other photographers. Primarily, I'm influenced by creative artists working outside the photography community. Retrospectively, I can see the influences of Salvador Dali’s surrealism, Alfred Hitchcock’s emotional framing and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematography in my photography. Any originality in my work is primarily due to a purposeful avoidance of being directly influenced by the photography art form.

Abandoned Elizalde Cement Plant by Chris Luckhardt

Abandoned Elizalde Cement Plant by Chris Luckhardt

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