It’s not so much the full turn of the door knob, but rather the jerk of the door giving in and letting go of the jam, that makes my heart leap a little in my chest. It’s in the instant when the door diaphragms open, just a sliver, and the house silently inhales, that I have to decide. Am I in? I mean all in? Not just can I get in but am I prepared to put myself into the space. Gaining access is only half of the journey. The success for me in photographing an abandoned or empty building depends as much on how open I am to what’s there, and what’s not, as it does on whether I can figure out a non-destructive way to gain access.
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Yesterday I “let myself” in and photographed the empty home and barns of a nearby farm property that I just learned is headed for auction next month. The day was pretty dark and gray and it wasn’t a planned expedition so I was grossly unprepared—without a tripod, necessary for lowlight conditions and didn’t have my widest angle lens. In these situations, one adapts, and prays.
I knew I’d be more interested in the house than the garage, sheds and barns put together. I always am. I love old houses. I live in one. Unlike perplexing barns, I like to think I understand old dwellings. They have a way of unraveling details about small bits of history that are essentially erased by new construction. Our house, for example, still has an attached outhouse, a two-holer. It regularly reminds us that indoor plumbing may very well be the most wonderful of all of human inventions.
I wandered about the first floor taking in any signs of life: tattoos of time and wear that have been stenciled on floors and walls where rugs or hanging pictures have been carried out; the scar left by a removed corner cupboard; an outdated calendar that has stopped time and makes me briefly rewind; the discarded instructions to a toaster oven; peeling wallpaper that reveals the house’s home decor ancestry. These are the things that speak to me, like little Haikus about the people once there.
I hope while I am there that my presence is viewed by the house, should it have a view, or any authorities that might discover me there (oh yes, that’s happened,) not as an intrusion but a celebration of all the fingerprints on the building. The laughter running up the stairs. The dreams absorbed by the kitchen curtains.
On this visit a few things stopped me cold. I let go a little gasp of fright as I turned one corner and almost ran smack into what I thought was a headless human figure but turned out to be farmer’s coveralls hanging alone in an open closet. The second thing to stop me was the discovery of a lovely ornate bible on the mantel in one of the downstairs rooms. Tug, tug. My heart sort of wilted. Surely there was a lot of the life of that house in that book. I have a strict rule about not disturbing anything I find in a place but I broke it slightly when I gingerly lifted the huge book’s embossed cover. Realizing it was too fragile for me to open safely, I gently lowered the tattered cover but not before noticing that beneath some scattered clippings, the volume began on the book of Exodus, not Genesis.
I hope the next stewards of this home fill it with love and more memories.
Side a note: The next lucky people to renovate our 1865 house will discover, upon stripping the wallpaper, love notes to the future that we wrote on the plaster as we restored the past. In the newly constructed or some refurbished walls they’ll uncover photos and other ephemeral pieces of local history. When houses talk, I hope people listen.