The stuff that’s left behind: Amherst photo exhibit looks at abandoned locales

  • “Stairway to Heaven,” portait of a former nursing home outside Philadelphia. — Photo by Linda Jane

  • What was left behind: An image from Forest Haven Asylum, a Maryland institution for children with disabilities and mental illness that became notorious for ill treatment and understaffing.

  • “Let the Show Begin,” abandoned theater in Buffalo, N.Y. Linda Jane

  • “Play it Again, Sam,” a curious relic from a former nursing home in New York state — Photo by Linda Jane

  • “Forgotten”  Linda Jane

  • “Wash Your Hands, Please,” remnant of America’s industrial past. Linda Jane

  • “Patterns of Misbehavior,” abandoned building in Philadelphia. Linda Jane

  • An image from Linda Jane’s forthcoming book about the destruction of a longstanding paper mill in a mall New Hampshire town. — Photo by Linda Jane

  • “Saturday Night at the Farm” — Photo by Linda Jane

  • “Going Gangster” — Photo by Linda Jane

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 03, 2017

When she was growing up, Linda Jane was fascinated by abandoned buildings, including an old home near hers in Ashuelot, a small town in southwestern New Hampshire.

Decades later, she hasn’t loss any of that interest. If anything, it has intensified.

For the last several years, Jane, 55, who recently moved to Hatfield from New Hampshire, has been using her camera to try and document unknown stories: scores of abandoned buildings, junked cars and other relics in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.

In “Echoes of the Past: Abandoned Photography,” an exhibit at Amherst Town Hall that runs through August, Jane presents a range of images rich in atmosphere, including a grand piano left in an empty, stately hall, a broad staircase that looks like a setting from a ghost story and a rusted auto hulk with a tree growing where its engine once was.

“I’ve always been interested in these kinds of places, the sense of mystery behind them,” Jane said during a recent phone interview from the cab of her truck; she’s a longtime driver for Regency Transportation, a trucking and warehousing company based in Franklin (she uses a headset for calls).

As she writes on her website, “When I photograph abandoned places — a factory, a hospital, someone’s home — I hope to show the beauty of decay and the mystery of what has been left behind. I listen to the quiet and envision the history of the building and the people who were once there.”

Though she took up a camera when she was 17 and had photographed weddings and portraits over the years, Jane became more intrigued with depicting abandoned locales several years ago, after she’d studied photography for two-and-a-half years through online courses at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

“I just started to get into it,” she said. “I’d learned more about photography, and I wanted to do something different.”

She now has ranged to over a dozen states to find her images; some she came across while driving her truck, mostly in Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut; but many others are sites she’s learned about through an active online community she’s part of that documents locations.

She has used vacation time to travel with other photographers to some of these locales, such as the Sattler Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y., a movie house that opened in 1914 and has been vacant for years.

“It’s actually a lot safer to go into a lot of these places with other people,” Jane noted, in case an old floor or wall gives way or someone falls and gets hurt.

‘I felt like someone was there’

Jane’s photograph of the interior of the Sattler Theatre makes for one of the most iconic pictures in her show. A ray of sunlight, almost like a spotlight, shines through a hole in a glass dome above the ceiling, illuminating a single row of seats. Otherwise the photograph is rimmed with shadow; ruined walls, a sagging, mottled ceiling and a rubble-strewn floor paint an enduring image of decay.

A darkened photo entitled “Stairway to Heaven” looks up a grand but badly worn staircase to a landing backed by a magnificent arched window; the bottoms of two staircases can be seen leading to a second floor. Setting for a generic horror film? It’s actually from a former nursing home outside Philadelphia, Jane says.

“It was clearly a very beautiful building in its day,” she noted. “That’s part of what I’m interested in — showing this beautiful architecture of older buildings ... in some cases there are efforts to repurpose or renovate” these buildings.

Jane has also documented not-so-nice places that still make for enduring images, like a vacant industrial setting in Philadelphia. “Patterns of Misbehavior” is shot from inside a vacant building where a huge puddle on the floor offers a reflection of the shattered windows high on one wall — an example of what she laughingly calls “window porn.”

By contrast, her show includes several shots of junked cars and pickup trucks — many of them vintage models — that have an almost pastoral feel, as the rusted hulks have been left in forests and fields to become part of the landscape, sinking into the ground or becoming adorned with greenery, like one wreck nestled on its side by three trees.

Jane has also played with the tone and colors of some of these pictures, giving them a painterly feel, a sort of Norman Rockwell-in-the-junkyard look. “I don’t like to shoot with any grit in the picture, but I sometimes put grit in,” she said.

Though she’s not one to believe in ghosts, Jane says taking pictures in long-abandoned places can be eerie. In one old building, which has a legend about a 10-year-old boy who still haunts the halls, “I felt like someone was there,” she recalled.

Her Amherst exhibit also includes some pictures particularly important to her: They were taken in and around a former paper mill in Ashuelot, her New Hampshire hometown, that was destroyed by a flood in 2005. In some cases she focuses on small details, like a rusting metal lunch box left behind.

She has been documenting the old mill, which opened in 1883 and was once a major employer in her small town, for a book, “Dark Waters,” that will be published this fall and will describe both the history of the mill and the disaster it experienced.

“This is a case where photos can help tell a more complete story,” she said. “It’s a project that’s really close to my heart.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Echoes of the Past” is on display at Amherst Town Hall through Aug. 31. There will be a reception today for the artist from 5 to 8 p.m. as part of Amherst Arts Night Plus.

Linda Jane’s website is echoesofthepast.photography.