Finding beauty in decay
by Lisa Bramen
A rusted motel sign or the mossy ruins of a chapel may look depressing, creepy or nostalgic, depending on the viewer. To photographer Katy Ells, the North Country’s neglected old buildings are beautiful, and a reminder of something quintessentially Adirondack: the intersection of nature and man.
A boyfriend introduced Ells to urban exploration—entering abandoned buildings to photograph or just snoop around—in spring 2015. The relationship ended, but not before Ells, who has taken photographs since her teens, discovered a subject matter that lit her creative fire. “I’ve always found beauty in decay,” the 37-year-old from Ewing, New Jersey, says.
Most “urbex” happens, as the name suggests, in cities. But Ells, who has visited the North Country her whole life, has found plenty to photograph here, from the collapsing barn on Route 73 in Keene to the ghost village of Adirondac, near Newcomb. Unlike urban structures that are quickly looted or covered in graffiti, the Adirondacks’ abandoned buildings often have a time capsule quality, she says.
Ells gets location ideas from her grandmother Jean Wyman, whom she frequently visits in Jay. “My grandmom is my best friend,” she says. “I call her the mayor because she knows everyone. She’ll be 90 in November, and she has more energy than me!”
Ells’s ancestors, the Moodys, were among the first settlers of Saranac Lake, where her grandfather Richard Wyman was raised. Her grandparents returned to the Adirondacks three decades ago; her grandfather passed away in 2009. “My grandmother always told me that I was an old soul,” Ells says. “I’ve always been interested in our family and local Adirondack history … so that is another reason this subject matter attracted me.”
Ells’s grandmother often accompanies her on quests, acting as “lookout” while she explores. Though urban exploration sometimes crosses the line into trespassing, Ells says the Adirondack places she photographs are neither fenced off nor posted. In the case of Frontier Town, a former amusement park in North Hudson, that may soon change. Lawmakers in Essex County, which owns most of the property, are discussing adding barriers and signs, citing safety concerns, while the fate of the crumbling buildings is decided.
But one of her favorite places to explore, the twice-abandoned village of Adirondac, near Newcomb, is open to the public. The handful of remaining structures, including a massive blast furnace, are owned by the Open Space Institute and accompanied by interpretive panels about the site’s 19th- and 20th-century mining history.
Ells sells prints at flea markets and art fairs. She attaches historical information about the sites, and says that customers are most interested in images with a good backstory.
Her best-selling photograph is of a chapel in Frontier Town that’s covered in moss and half-swallowed by vegetation. The day Ells shot it was the only time she has been spooked while exploring abandoned places. “I was inside a cabin in the back, and the trees were creaking in the wind,” she says. “Suddenly I had this feeling I wasn’t alone, and I thought I heard my name. I got the hell out of there.”