Photographer Will Ellis made a name for himself capturing New York's amazing decrepit spaces on his blog Abandoned NYC, and now his work is the subject of a new book, out this week. The book features 16 derelict locations (mostly) within city limits, including brand new photos of five locations never released online (hello, sunken Coney Island submarine). Ellis's love of abandoned buildings is as deeply tied to a curiosity for the ghoulish as it is to an intense connection with the history behind New York City's many stories. His blog covers NYC abandonments more extensively and prosaically than nearly any other print or online source, and his photos capture the beauty of what many shrug off as eyesores and urban blight. Ellis talked with Curbed contributor Hannah Frishberg about the book and shared 18 photos of a few of his favorite sites.
How did you get into urban exploration?
It wasn't something that I set out to do at all, I was just out one day with my camera in Red Hook, just kind of looking around, looking for inspiration, and I came across this huge warehouse, 160 Imlay Street [ed. note: This building is now being converted into condos]. I've always been drawn to creepy stuff: ghosts, monsters, stuff like that. Halloween was my favorite holiday growing up. So that's kind of what drew me to it, initially. I was also reading a lot of these old gothic fiction and horror stories at the time, H.P. Lovecraft and stuff like that. A lot of those stories are about creating that sense of atmosphere, and more often than not they're set in these decrepit estates. So I was able to find those places I was drawn to in these books, but to find them in real life, in my own backyard. I still don't think of myself as a daredevil. I never used to break the law much, I played by the rules. I'm scared of heights. But I saw you could just walk into the building, and I went for it that day. From that point on, I was hooked. That sensation of discovery, the thrill and adrenaline of it. Especially in the first two months I was doing this. For several months I was going out every chance I got. I've slowed down a bit since then.
How is urban exploration different in New York City versus upstate?
I'm running out of places in New York City. My book is called Abandoned NYC, but now I'm looking to find places that are undiscovered, and you don't come across things very often in NYC that are accessible and haven't had 50 other photographers go in and post photos already. A lot of newer material on the blog these days is from Jersey, the Catskills, and the Hudson Valley. There's still so much to see! But I like to use these places to tell the stories of New York City. It creates a narrative when you go in and find out how these places relate to the history of a specific city. Often, I find that places outside the city are still very much tied to NYC. For example, a couple of places in the book, like Letchworth Village, or Grossinger's Resort in the Catskills, a lot of the residents were New Yorkers. Is it hard for you to watch these spaces change over time? Do you feel like you've done them a certain justice in documenting them?
It's really hard. It's happening more and more often, and it feels like I'm constantly having to say goodbye to these places. Even if a place is used and renovated and brought back to life, it's great for the community and the neighborhood, but a part of me wants them to stay the way they were, as the places in the city that are wild and mysterious. In the best case scenario, when the building is preserved, it still feels like we're losing something.
Do you have a favorite photo essay to date?
It's hard to pick one. Most of them are special to me for one reason or another, but I guess the one's that do stick out are the ones that have something particular to them as spaces that's distinct. You can see a lot of asylums that all start to look the same. At Creedmoor State Hospital, though, the pigeon poop situation was unlike anything I've ever seen. Another that's a favorite is PS 186. It's also hard to separate my sentimental memories of being in these places. PS 186 was one of the first places I went to. It just took my breathe away. Watching the sunrise in that place was unforgettable.
Why did you choose not to publish certain photo essays online?
I wanted to have some content in the book that hadn't already been on the blog, and in addition to the new places, there are also new images. And all the text is revised, rewritten, and re-researched, so I feel like people will be getting something new. There's a whole chapter in the book on railroads and waterfronts, and those are all new places.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
I've tried to kind of develop my style overtime by seeing what I like and don't like. There's definitely people who inspire me, but I don't try to emulate one person. It's just a process of taking a ton of pictures over time. When I look back at the first pictures I took, I look away, they're so bad. But now I know what I like, and I've stuck to that. So it sort of come about in the process of taking these pictures.
Tell me about what it was like exploring Coney Island Creek.
I couldn't actually get inside the submarine. It's a pretty cool place, similar to the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard on Staten Island. Most of the boats are pretty thoroughly decayed and burned out, but the highlight is definitely that submarine. The story behind it is that it was actually built by this guy, Jarry Bianco, a shipbuilder who lived nearbyit's a homemade submarine. Bianco had a dream of uncovering the sunken treasure of this vessel that had capsized near the entrance to New York Harbor many years before. Basically, he set out to find this buried treasure and took off from Coney Island Creek, but within a matter of minutes his submarine just got submerged in the muck, and it's been there ever since. So it's a monument to his failed expedition. I heard about it on the internet; the New York Times wrote about it.
Do you usually explore alone?
I guess when I first started out I pretty much only explored alone, although I sometimes go with people who have cars. I almost prefer doing it by myself, though, because I find when I go with people they get tired of it and want to leave, and I just could stay for hours and hours to take pictures. I want to focus on what I'm doing. It changes your experience with the space, being there alone; it's a very different experience when you go with someone, and you're talking with someone. It feels like you can just really connect with [the places] on a deeper level when you're there alone.