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.