Abandoned Western Pennsylvania’s photographs capture beauty that has withered into nothing | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Abandoned Western Pennsylvania’s photographs capture beauty that has withered into nothing

Abandoned Western Pennsylvania’s photographs capture beauty that has withered into nothing
Cindy Vasko
The photographs in Cindy Vasko's Abandoned Western Pennsylvania: Separation from a Proud Heritage are provocative, but the emotion they provoke depends on the viewer. The images — dilapidated staircases, walls choked by climbing vines, classrooms with writing still visible on the blackboard — tell stories that reflect our relationships to buildings and objects. Some viewers might see these in terms of history and politics, the effect of industries leaving Southwest Pennsylvania, or the treatment of criminals and the mentally ill. Some might find them depressing, while others might just be in it for the rush of mysterious, eerie imagery. Regardless, Vasko's photos in Abandoned Western Pennsylvania: Separation from a Proud Heritage are undeniably powerful.

Pittsburgh City Paper spoke with Vasko about Abandoned Western Pennsylvania and the rules of shooting in abandoned buildings.

How frequently do you encounter spaces where it’s clear somebody has been there recently?

You mean squatters?

Sure. Or like, teens getting stoned.

I do my research before I embark on an abandoned journey. We do run across people who have claimed residence in a site. I do run across strange things sometimes. But I always know if it’s abandoned or not.

Do you remember the first abandoned structure that you explored?

I was fascinated with an abandoned barn near my home in Allentown. It was a property about four blocks from my home and it was covered in vines, and there was nothing in it, but it was so fascinating. It was a sad feeling, too. How could something so beautiful — it was a beautiful barn with gables and beautiful tiles — how could it just wither away to nothing?

I actually stumbled upon an abandoned [building] photograph in 2012 and that’s what pulled me into the art form. I used to work for a law firm. I was the publications manager, and an attorney submitted a request to do some research on a casino in Glendale, Ariz. I was at home one night, just researching away on Google for legal information. I took a break, came back, and instead of googling Glendale, Ariz. casino, I just [typed] Glendale, and all at once, a strip of images popped up, and there was an abandoned site of Glendale Asylum in Maryland. That just pulled me in right away. I clicked on the image and looked at images til four in the morning, all at once, I knew that was my photography niche.

There's a community?

Yes, yes, oh yes. You never go alone.

Are there more rules?

There’s one big rule: We never take anything. We leave the site as it is. We never destroy anything, break into anything. We just shoot photographs. We leave the site as it is. I don’t stage anything. I just go in and shoot. We have a lot of respect for the sites. We don’t want to decimate them. We hope that someday somebody will reclaim it and renovate it, but that’s generally not the case. Usually, it’s the other way, nature grabs them and takes them.

There’s the history, there’s the anthropology, there’s sadness, but I think for many people their interest is from a paranormal perspective, it’s titillating.

A lot of places do have a creepy sense about them, especially hospitals, and asylums and prisons. It’s very unsettling, but I don’t delve into the paranormal. A lot of people do, but the people in my group don’t think about that. It is a very unsettling feeling at times, coming across graffiti on prison walls or artifacts left behind, wedding albums rotting in a pile of leaves. It’s dismal sometimes.

Can you tell me about the image of the TV and the chair, "Apartment"?

That was in an abandoned apartment building, originally a hotel. I really don’t know the whole history of the place, but I think it’s been abandoned for 15-20 years. And there’s a lot of vandalism in that site, but apparently somebody had staged that TV and that lounge chair. And the color is fabulous, it’s just a powerful image. It’s one of my favorites.

Abandoned Western Pennsylvania: Separation from a Proud Heritage is available now from America Through Time. through-time.co