Friday, December 25, 2009

Discovery Island

In the middle of Bay Lake, deep within the heart of the Walt Disney World property, lies Discovery Island. It is a former wildlife attraction/sanctuary that was closed in 1999 and has been left to run wild since. This is the story of my trip there quite a few years ago when I lived in FL. In the time since, I've learned a few disturbing facts about the lake and as such would not recommend that anyone attempt to re-trace our footsteps. I've heard from more than a few people that there are actually alligators that live in the lake, something I hadn't even thought of, assuming this was just some other Disney attraction. Even more alarming, I've also heard that the main reason Disney closed the adjacent water park is because of the presence of Naegleria Fowleri bacteria in the water which can infect human nervous systems and nearly always results in death.

I'd heard about the island from some Orlando locals. They told us that there were rumors that there were bunches of animals still left running wild on the island. They hadn't visited it themselves but told us that it was about 100 feet off the shore of the also abandoned River Country water park and that boat traffic was infrequent on the lake. We arrived with a plan involving an inflatable boat, 150 feet of clothesline(to pull the boat back across for other people), a large hand pump, and a few oars. After an ordeal smuggling the suspicious supplies into the Fort Wilderness campground via the Disney Shuttle buses, we finally made our way through the abandoned Water Park and got to the shore. To our dismay, we discovered that the island was in fact at least 300 feet away and that passenger ferries crossed between the island and shore every 5-10 minutes. It would make paddling across virtually impossible. We left defeated and I vowed to return and conquer the island some day.

It would be nearly a year before I returned. This time, we ditched the boat plan, it was too cumbersome, obvious, and slow. The plan this time was to swim for it. We loaded up some waterproof bags with equipment and headed out to the park.

After making our way past some old water slides, we followed a path around the shore. Disney seems to like keeping all the lights on even in their abandoned properties in order to give the impression that they are still functional. A bit eerie, but we continued anyways.

We finally made it to the shore and could see our target. We would head for a beacon of light on the shore of the island. We'd arrived late enough that the ferries had stopped running and the only thing to worry about would be occasional lake patrols by Disney security. We put our clothes into the waterproof bags and waded into the still lake water.

We swam as quickly and quietly as we could, using our waterproof bags as flotation devices. Landing on the shore I couldn't help but feel like a navy seal sneaking up on an enemy target under the cover of darkness. We quickly made our way out of sight into the trees and stashed our wet gear under some bushes.

Now, while the island docks may be lit, the interior paths on the island are far from it. We knew we wouldn't be able to use any bright lights while on the island, so with some small red colored lights, we made our way through overgrown paths. Almost immediately, we realized we were not alone on this island. We could hear all sorts of noises in the trees surrounding us. We were literally surrounded by what sounded like thousands of birds. We could hear them cawing and cooing in all directions, some sounded almost like people speaking. With every branch we stepped on that made a snap, a group of birds would be startled and take off all at once, making even more noise. It was really quite a surreal experience.

The island had certainly not been maintained in any way since closing, we had quite a bit of trouble navigating it and figuring out exactly where the paths were. One of the first things we encountered were what looked like cages as well as what I assume were veterinary facilities and storage areas.

Venturing further into the island, we came across a storage building that was filled with all sorts of left over paperwork, photos, and some preserved snakes in odd containers.

The going was pretty slow on the island due to the limited lighting, heavily overgrown paths, and disorienting animal noises. Spiderwebs also slowed our progress significantly and we eventually had to resort to constantly swinging our tripods in front of us to clear them out of the way as we walked. After a while, we came to some larger areas that looked like they might have been canopied enclosures for birds as well as some sheltered areas for visitors.

In one of these sheltered areas, we came across one of the more interesting finds of the night. I'd been poking around the space when I heard a hissing noise coming from one of the corners. Shining a light into it, we discovered 2 young vultures, still unable to fly but incredibly aggressive. Despite being not much larger than chickens, they puffed themselves up while making some ungodly hissing noises and charging at us until we left the area.

After finding the vultures, we had been there 3 hours and only covered half the island. We knew the ferries would start running again fairly early in the morning and that people would be waking up and moving around the park grounds, so we decided to turn back and get ready to make the swim back. We stopped at a dock on the way back for the mandatory group photo looking back on the mainland before packing up our cameras and swimming back across. The swim back went smoothly and we discretely made our way out of the park, only getting a few odd looks while waiting for the first bus of the day back to the parking lot as the sun came up.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The High Line

It seems the newly opened High Line park has been quite a hit this past summer. There has been a bit of controversy surrounding the newly opened park, and I'm generally part of the camp that thinks it was better before it was Disneyfied. My experiences with it go back to early 2008 when the lower sections were under construction and being stripped out for the park conversion.

I had managed to climb up one of the construction scaffolds and scale the side of the railway near a gas station and wandered south to the sections that were being worked on. At this point pretty much all of the grass and wildflowers were gone and they were in the process of tearing up the passageways through some of the buildings. I was able to get on a few rooftops and into some of the abandoned buildings that were connected to it and took some photos. I also discovered a stairway that led to the inside of an active meat packing plant along the route. I pulled my hoodie over my head like the employees I spotted, and walked right out the front door of the building and into Hogs N Heifer's Saloon right across the street where I was promptly extorted by the scantily clad bartenders.

It would be nearly a year before I visited the High Line again. The park had recently opened and I tried to visit it coincidentally on the same day as the LGBT Pride parade. Sure enough, the city decided to shut down the park early because too many people were trying to visit it. Not being one to be turned away so easily, I decided that I was going to see it that day no matter what. I made my way to the one entrance I was sure the parks department still had no control over and headed up. Walking past some Metro North Employee's smoking on an adjacent rooftop, I waved and said "Beautiful day, isn't it?" to which they agreed and didn't give me another look as I continued along the tracks. This section in particular was still wild and untouched by the parks department. The railings were all still beautifully rusty and the plants grew anywhere they pleased. I ran into a man walking along in the opposite direction and stopped briefly to chat with him. He said that he passes through pretty often and nobody seems to really care. He seemed a little twitchy and nervous as I spoke to him, so I thanked him and started on my way. As I began walking he said "Would you like to take a picture of me?" I was surprised but I agreed and quickly snapped a shot. Before I even had an opportunity to ask him for an email address or way to reach him if he wanted a copy, he was off walking down the tracks. I spent a while longer up there photographing and exploring the still abandoned sections and snuck a peek at the park before heading home.

Having had such a pleasant time up there, I knew I had to return with a model as soon as possible. It seemed the construction equipment was getting dangerously close to this last section and I'd kick myself if I didn't manage to pull off a shoot on it before it was turned into another boring park. I called up Marlo that week and we got together on a late afternoon to head up there. When we met near Penn Station, it was pouring rain, and we only had an hour or two of daylight left. We hopped from awning to awning and slowly made our way to the entrance, hoping that the rain would let off soon. It had slowed down to a drizzle and I decided that would have to be good enough and we started on
our way up. Just as we were getting to the area I planned to shoot in, the rain stopped completely and the sky opened up just in time for the sunset. Perfect! I couldn't have hoped for better conditions and the shoot went off without a hitch. Despite being only a few blocks from midtown, we only managed to attract the attention of a single guy working at a warehouse next to the rail line and were able to wrap it up pretty quickly. As usual, Marlo was great and we got exactly the shots I'd hoped to.

I guess I too was feeling a lot of love for this little section of rail and I ended up planning a little 4th of July celebration of my own up there. This year, they decided to have the Macy's fireworks displays over the Hudson River in honor of the anniversary of it's discovery. It seemed like it would be a perfect spot to view them from as it was both secluded and had an unobstructed view of the river.
Myself and a few others made our way through a little known subterranean connection to the High Line a few minutes before the fireworks were set to start. We bypassed all the crowds this way and discretely made our way to our VIP seats. We stretched out and cracked a few beers while the hoards of people just 20 feet on the other side of a fence stood packed like sardines, surrounded by police barricades and unable to move, drink, or sit. Yet another example of how it always pays to have your experiences on your own terms and not accept those that are pre-packaged for you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Julia Nicole

Here are a few images of Julia Nicole from an abandoned NY State Psychiatric Hospital. These first two images are from our first shoot together a good year and a half ago:

Shortly after this, we went and also shot at an abandoned railroad power substation in the city. While she was posing atop one of the rotary converters, we heard a police siren whoop right outside the front door. I motioned for her to quietly come down and hide in a room off to the side as there were openings in the plywood boards on the front of the building. I wasn't sure that the siren was for us, so I crept up to one of the openings and took a peek. I could see a squad car parked right in front, and one of the officers was sitting in the passenger seat with his arm hanging out of the window. Just about that time, one of my other photographer friends was arriving at the location because they'd heard it was accessible and knew I'd be there on that day. He called me to see if I was finished with the model yet and I picked up the phone and explained the situation. He went around to the front of the building to check it out and try to annoy the cop away with touristy questions, but by the time he got to the front of the building they had already pulled away, apparently clueless to what was going on a mere 12 feet from where they were parked.

I suppose our little trip to the hospital and substation made a good impression on Julia as she took quite an interest in exploring abandoned buildings afterwards. She started tagging along on trips and quickly made friends with other recreational trespassers in the area. A few months ago, she asked me to take her back to the same hospital we'd shot in originally as she hadn't gotten to go back to it since our shoot and it was one of her favorite places. The main goal of the trip was for her to shoot with her friend Stacey Lynn so I spent most of the time wandering the hallways on my own and keeping an ear out for any unexpected visitors.

Here's Julia working with Stacey in one of the bathrooms:

I was of course able to steal her away for a little bit and shoot in a few spots I had found while wandering around the building. Julia is always a good sport and a pleasure to work with. She's never complained or backed down from a challenge at a shoot yet. Definitely keep an eye out for more work with her in the future. Here she is in a patient room as well as in a printing workshop covered in red ink:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Willy's Peak

Some of you may have noticed the lack of updates around here, but rest assured it is not for lack of motivation, but rather from an excess. I've been so busy running around and shooting the past few months that I've hardly had a moment to sit down and look through my images. Now that the weather is winding down a bit, you'll be seeing just what I've been up to.

To start it off we'll take a visit to what was (at the time of my visit) the tallest building in Brooklyn. The Williamsburg Savings Bank:

I had just gotten back from a ridiculous trip (that you'll hear about in due time) when I got a message about a secret party on the abandoned observation deck of old Willy. I was feeling a little under the weather and not quite up for it, but I figured this might be my only chance to see it before it becomes part of someones condo. I chugged some Nyquil, packed my camera and headed out.

Upon arriving, I discovered that apparently the party had been kept a little too secret and wasn't quite as lively as it should have been. That was fine with me as I was there with ulterior motives. The roof deck was definitely neat to see, but that wore off pretty quickly and I headed off in search of the real grand prize, the gilded copper dome at the summit.

I rounded up a couple intrepid friends and we made our way upwards. Once into the mechanical rooms, it's only a few ladders up to the top of the AC units. After navigating a few I-beams, you make your way to a ladder that takes you up into the highest catwalk level of the dome. It turns out, the dome is actually made of some relatively thin flaps of metal that are attached like ladder rungs between huge ribs that are all attached to a central smokestack for the building.

Upon reaching the catwalk, I was fairly content with having reached the top until someone noticed another set of stairs that seemingly terminated at a dead end with the smokestack at the top of the dome. Some less curious folk might ignore such a thing, but surely we could not. We climbed up the ladder and through the slats in the dome we could see that there was actually a small platform on the exterior of the dome that surrounded the smokestack! One of the slimmer in our group went up first and said it was fine to come up. I didn't quite fit through the opening he had gone through, so I moved one opening further down the dome that was wide enough for my shoulders and awkwardly started climbing it. I could feel the metal of the slats flex as I pulled myself up through it and wondered if they would be able to support my full weight as I planted my foot on it and leaned forward to get onto the platform around the smokestack. Finally we were there! This was it!

There wasn't alot of room to move around once up there, so we sat and took in the view for a while. It really was quite a perfect night, very little wind, and the skys were so clear that we could practically see the entire city end to end. All in all, a great way to be welcomed back to the city after a long and exhausting week away.

We made our way back down safely and reunited with the hosts of the party and helped clean up a little bit before making our way out of the building.

Sometime in the next week I made it back to the building to go get some daylight shots of things that were too hard to shoot at night. Here you can see the interior of the dome, including the tallest catwalk above:
Here's another shot showing the way out onto the smokestack platform, while obviously not for the timid or faint of heart, it was definitely easier the second time around. The key thing to remember with all of these things, especially when there are ladders and stairs present is that fundamentally these things were built to be climbed by workers.

That's all for now! As always, click on images for larger versions. Time to get back to more editing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Moon

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, and I've felt inspired to share my own personal experience with the space program as a result. This all started a few years back when I still lived in FL and heard about an abandoned rocket engine factory out in the middle of the Everglades. It turns out that Aerojet General had built the factory in the 1960's to develop, build, and test solid rocket boosters for a proposed version of the Saturn rocket. They were successful in building a series of 260" diameter test engines and firing them. The last of the 3 engines would produce some 2,670,000 kgf thrust, making it the most powerful rocket engine ever fired in the history of the planet. In spite of the tests, Aerojet lost the NASA contract to one of their competitors and eventually sold the facility and land back to the State of FL.

It's been since left to be reclaimed by nature and this is how I found it a few years ago, pictured is the main assembly building, one of the support buildings, and a submerged road that we had to traverse (to take a more discrete route to the facility):

The main facility itself is a giant playground of 10 buildings and on it's own is a pretty amazing find, but there is quite a surprise another 3 miles down the road. As I mentioned before, this facility was not just a factory, but it was also testing grounds for what would be the largest rocket engine in the world. We rode bikes down to the main test site and discovered a large airplane hangar like building, it was a seemingly empty building on a huge paved area. Metal plates formed a circle on the ground maybe 40 feet in diameter in the middle of the building. Apparently, as I was walking around on these rusty metal plates and looking around a peice of rust broke off one of the gratings below my feet and fell through a gap. I didn't realize what had happened until I heard the echo from what sounded like a gigantic void below my feet. I immediately got down on the floor and shone a light down to see what the hell had made such a strange noise. I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. There was a gigantic hole in the ground below me, deeper than anything I'd seen in my entire life. Being from South FL I'm not really used to seeing much elevation or anything dug very deep in the ground, we're just about at sea level. Regardless of what I believed, there it was, a giant cement lined hole in the ground, and sitting in the middle of it was an equally huge white cylinder with the words NASA 260 SL-2 printed right on the side of it. H O L Y S H I T. There was a fucking rocket engine sitting right there beneath my feet, in the deepest goddamn hole I'd ever seen, in the middle of a fucking SWAMP. I knew at that moment that I would have to go down there see this thing for myself. I didn't know how, but I was going to do it. How could you not? It's not very often that an ordinary citizen ever gets to be this close to a rocket engine, especially an experimental prototype for a lunar launch.

We searched the entire cover of the silo for any possible weaknesses and tried to come up with ideas for how to proceed. It was determined that we would need climbing gear, as I wasn't able to see any way down to the platform below without it. Was there even breathable air down there? This was a low lying area in a swampy wetland. It seemed plausible that methane or other natural gases could collect in the silo. Would we pass out at the bottom? Would the platform still be stable enough to stand on? Not having the equipment or knowledge necessary for this sort of thing, I started contacting others who might be able to help and would be willing to come to FL for this.

After a few months of talking to people and thinking about this WAY too much, we finally mounted an expedition. Myself, Junkyard (the man with the climbing knowledge) from WI, and my good bud Mayhem got on our bikes and rode all the way out to the test site. After quite a bit of work to find a way in, Junkyard started rigging up the rope system. This would be my first time ever rappelling and ascending a rope of any kind. He gave me a crash course on the surface and I practiced a few times off of the second story of the building how to get down and switch into the ascent rig to come back up. I was feeling pretty good about it. In fact, I was feeling so good about it that I insisted that I be the first one down. After all, I had found the damned thing and done all the planning for this.This turned out to be a not so good idea.

We got in at the first level and found ourselves on a platform maybe 10 feet below the surface. There was a staircase that went down, but unfortunately it was about 20 feet away from the platform we were on and as such was not reachable. We would have to rappel all the way down, a good 90ft I would guess. Roughly halfway down the entire length of the silo to the platform the rocket engine was sitting on. After tying in, setting up the video camera, and Junkyard checkin everything over, I began my descent.

All was going pretty smoothly, it was a nice slow and controlled descent. I spun around in the darkness, my headlamp lighting up the side of the engine every time I turned past it. It was beautiful. After about 30 feet I could no longer make out much of anything Junkyard or Mayhem said due to the ridiculous amount of echo in the silo. Now I'm more than halfway there, slowly making my way down. Suddenly, I feel something catch in my braking hand. I pull the rope into a stop position and realize that there is a kink in the rope. "Uhhh guys, there's a kink in the rope." I say to the guys above, hoping for some guidance. I'm still a good 30 feet above the platform. "You gotta shake it out" Junkyard says. I shake it as much as I can, struggling with it for a few minutes, nothing changes. It's still there. I'm terrified that if I let it go, it'll get stuck in my descender and then I'll be completely trapped. It feels like a pile of rocks just dropped in my stomach. I yell up that I still can't get it out. Junkyard then tells me that I'll have to clip into the ascent rig, raise myself a few feet, and then get the kink out. That wasn't part of my little lesson before. I'd put the ascent rig together on the surface, standing on the ground. Now he's telling me that I'd have to do it while hanging on a rope in the dark, with only one free hand. They are also the only ascenders we have, so if I happen to drop it while I'm doing this, I won't be able to get back out of the hole at all. Needless to say I am pretty terrified at this point.

In a desperate, last resort before trying the ascent rig, I let go of my guide hand on the top end of the rope and kick my feet up so that I'm almost completely upside down. I reach back with that now freed hand and grab the rope below where the kink is. I pull up on it and feed rope into the kink, giving it a bit more room to untwist itself, and... it works! I drop the rest of the 30 feet pretty quickly and am incredibly relieved to be standing on solid ground again. I spend the next 20 or 30 minutes taking pictures, touching the rocket, and generally being happy about being there.

After that, there was a pretty grueling ascent ahead of me. Junkyard's rig was not quite set up correctly for the length of my arms, so it was not nearly as efficient as it should be. It was honestly one of the hardest physical things I've ever done. I stopped frequently to take breaks, but not too long, for I knew that every minute I spent on that rope was a risk I was taking and at this point I just wanted to be done with it. I finally eeked out my last bit of strength to pull myself up onto the platform and re-joined Junkyard and Mayhem. Within about 30 seconds of planting feet on the platform, I totally went into shock. I felt like I was gonna puke/pass out, my vision shrunk down into a blue tunnel, my hearing became muffled. It was incredibly intense, I think it was just from the combination of the kink incident and the tough climb, I was just overwhelmed. After sitting for a few minutes and catching my breath, things returned to normal and I emerged victorious from the silo. The cool night air never felt better after being down in that hole for the past hour or so. Junkyard took his turn going down and it was pretty much without incident, Mayhem decided not to go after my ordeal as he was just as inexperienced as I was and not as comfortable with heights. Sure, it's not quite going to the moon, but for me, this is probably about as close as I will ever get.

Epilogue: Here are a few assorted historical images I pulled from various sources as well as a couple of photos of a model from the main facility that were previously unpublished. You can actually make out the hangar type building in the 3rd shot. The building was apparently mounted on airplane wheels and was able to be moved across the huge paved area for firing tests and then could be pull back over to cover it. The building is now completely anchored to the ground and no longer mobile.

If you want to read some more about the rocket engine itself and the history of the facility, check out:

Thursday, April 30, 2009


A couple shots from the Sawmill River with Sheba. I didn't post these with my last update to the site because as usual I wasn't happy with the translation of the actual space into a photo. The shots are interesting, but I feel like they may not be quite as otherworldly as some of my other images. This is a set of images that I've gone back and forth on many times, I'm still not sure that I made the right decision.

Both of these shots were taken in the remains of an abandoned building over the river, right in the middle of downtown Yonkers. It's quite striking with the roof/floors of the building gone, the sunlight beams all the way through the shell of the building to the river below. I've shot this place before on my previous trips where we rafted down the river, but this was my first attempt with a model. When I exchanged emails with Sheba she mentioned that she has a fascination with water so I knew this would be a perfect match.

Sheba had also told me that she had issues with spiders and I had assured her that there weren't any at this particular spot as I had never seen any at all on previous trips. Unfortunately for her, I was quite wrong and there were quite a few of them all over the walls. They hadn't been there (or weren't visible) a few weeks ago when I passed through the river. I think it may have had to do with the weather warming up significantly when we shot there. It could have also been due to lack of rain in the days before that would have flushed away all the arachnids. Either way, she stuck it out and I did my best to clear any webs from an area before she moved towards it to pose. She did great overall and it was a pleasure working with her.

I'd like to give this spot another chance and I'd love to do it with Sheba as she was a good match for this space, but that may not be possible. She happened to be in NYC on a layover and I'm not sure when our paths will cross again. I just picked up a new camera and slightly wider lens, so I may go back and play with a few alternate angles with a different model sometime this summer. We'll see how it goes, there are alot of factors that come into play with this location, most dependent on weather conditions.

Monday, April 6, 2009


Another shot of Aubrey from the water filtration plant. It would seem this was my most productive shoot yet, I've already posted 4 other images from it. Even with running a bit late and light fading, we were able to do a bunch of varied setups.

This image was shot on Provia 100F with my trusty 28/2.8 ais on my dads old Nikkormat, a combination I grow more fond of every day. I also shot this digitally, but the flare from the plastic covered windows was nowhere near as pleasing as it is on film. I ended up rejecting the shot because I felt that it didn't define the space adequately. It's also a little bit closer than I normally get to models and consequently more personal. I usually like to step back and let the models really experience the vastness and solitude of the space. This is a bit of a departure from that, but I think it stands pretty well on it's own.

Friday, April 3, 2009


A couple outtakes/alternates from my shoot with Marlo on the Municipal Building. This was a long time coming, it had taken me quite a while to find a model that was brave enough to venture out onto that ledge. Marlo was fantastic and we were quite efficient, getting it all done with in a matter of 30 minutes or so from meeting in City Hall Park to exiting the building victoriously. This was one of the situations where I had a really solid idea about the exact positioning/pose/framing I wanted for the shot. That's what ended up in the final version.

These are two images that had some elements I found interesting and worth exploring a bit. The first is a color version that gives a sense of what the day was like, this was taken at the end of November and it was at most 45 degrees out and quite windy. I love the full view of City Hall below and sense of the color changes happening in the trees. I also like the pose itself in the sense that it is a bit more contemplative and is directly confronting the drop below. It more directly addresses the mortality issues that sometimes spring up in my work. I only wish that this composition were as strong overall as the final version, but it just didn't compare.

This last shot is a candid I ended up taking after we were done that I was sure would have been a throwaway. After being out there for a good 15 minutes or so, Marlo was starting to shiver and that meant the shoot was over. I told her we were done and she could come back in. I handed Marlo her slip dress she decided to get dressed while still standing out on the ledge and I realized I still had a frame or two left to waste on my film camera, so I leaned out through the columns once again and snapped off this image. As it turned out, it ended up being my favorite from the whole roll of film. Although it really doesn't fit in with the conceptual framework of my project, I found it to be strangely captivating. It's definitely got a voyeuristic feel, yet when combined with the setting, it makes it something completely different.

This really is a special little place. It's in the center of one of the busiest areas of the cities and in one of the largest government buildings in the world, yet it manages to be one of the most peaceful and secluded places in the entire city. It's high enough that all the city noise and chaos seems to disappear with the wind, and pedestrians are not much more than ants going about their busy little days. You really couldn't ask for a better refuge from the daily grind.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Monsterquest: Gators in NYC Sewers

Small appearance in a recent episode of Monsterquest where Moses Gates and myself led an expedition into a large sewer in Queens. The Monsterquest crew were unable to venture into the sewer for fear of legal issues, so I ended up being the one who filmed the trip while Moses and Kenny the herpetologist were on camera. As a result, there is only a brief clip of me tying my shoes and crossing a street in the final episode, but there is a good chunk of audio where I explain just how high the water level can get when it rains.

Here's a clip with the segments we were in that Moses edited down:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Upcoming Event: SNAP'M

I'll be attending this event on March 26th. I won't be shooting but I'll definitely be there to socialize and have a few drinks. If anyone wants to meet up, shoot me an email and we'll make arrangements.