Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Underground Photography: Are rare photographs worth the risk?

DULUTH, MN- You pull over to the side of the road. Turning off the headlights, you make sure your car is safely incognito. Posing as someone who has car trouble, you hike towards the gas station on Midway Road, heavy duffel bag in tow.

Eyes anxiously dart around looking for cars. Finding none, you quickly duck into a ditch. Just remember- tuck and roll.

It’s then that you see it: the Nopeming Nursing Home property, in all its creepy glory. Equipped with a camera, lights, a tripod and a heart bursting with adrenaline, you set ahead into what may be your last night with a clean record.

Underground photography is a phenomenon that has recently come to the attention of the Duluth authorities. What’s happening is this- photographers are getting bored with the same-old locations that are available for photo opportunities.

“Photographers, as a general rule, want to capture things others haven't- or can't, or won't- so some of the appeal is just that,” said Brian Rauvola, photographer.

“Also, there is a kind of curiosity in human nature to see and experience ‘hidden’ and ‘unknown’ spaces, presumably to find out everything we can about our environment,” he said.

There are many places in the Duluth and Two Harbor area that have abandoned buildings and other places where intrusion is prohibited.

One of these places is the dilapidated Nopeming Nursing Home property in Duluth.

According to St. Louis County records, Nopeming was established in Minnesota by law in 1909 as a treatment facility for tuberculosis patients.

Part of this facility was converted for nursing home use in 1957. In 1971, the tuberculosis treatment section was terminated, and Nopeming became exclusively a nursing home. It continued to function as a nursing home until it was closed in December of 2002.

The nursing home has a very hair-raising atmosphere. Inside are areas such as a morgue, a theater with a blood-red curtained stage, and residential rooms that are still half furnished.

Rumor has it that there’s a blackboard inside the building that photographers and other intruders sign once they gain access.

One person, who wishes to remain anonymous, admitted to breaking into Nopeming last summer with a friend.

“According to the police report the security guard and about 5 policemen, the sheriff and K9 units were on the scene for about a hour while we were inside the building,” he said.

“We had no clue since we were in the basement of the main complex at the time. When they were about to leave, the security guard heard noises from the basement. We must have [gone] out a different direction from where the security guard had, and walked to the other side of the building. We heard voices that sounded like they were down the hall.”

“Not sure of what we were hearing, we ran out of the building only to see 3 squad cars. Since we didn't know if we had been seen we started running to our car as a police officer jumped out from around a corner,” he continued.

“Then we were put to the ground while the other officers came around from the back side of the building.”

Alarms are visible when looking in the windows and glass doors at Nopeming. However, they look like the $5 ones you can buy at anywhere. But apparently that’s not the case.

“According to the security guard there is a $70,000 security system installed in the building that calls him whenever the alarm is tripped,” said the anonymous ruffian.

“We were careful to look for alarms and checked doors which had reed switches that would set off the alarm, we thought they might be from the 70's but we avoided them just to be careful.”

Avoiding the alarms might seem like an idea that would work, but this did not prove successful for the pair that broke in.

“We avoided them for several hours but thinking that they must have been old alarms we stopped checking while we walked around,” he said.

“We guess now that there was a motion sensor in the stage area right before we went to the basement that we set off.”

Another person who got into Nopeming is Jonny Slanga, who is into the underground photography scene.

“To me, taking photos in a place you're not supposed to introduces a feeling of originality. Chances are, if you're somewhere you shouldn't be, then other photographers haven't been there. Just the fact that you're not supposed to be there make the subject matter touch a little more on taboo and perhaps even surreal,” he said.

“Nopeming was a diamond in the rough, it was unlike anything I had ever seen.”

There is another locale in Duluth that most art students know about. Previously recommended by art professors, including UMD’s own Jen Dietrich, for inspiration for fine art projects, this place has become forbidden.

Graffiti Graveyard is an area under I-35 near the Train Depot. In order to get to this place, sneakiness must be involved. The Graveyard is legal to access because its public property, however, it is illegal to cross the train tracks and the company's property.

According to the Duluth Photographer’s Guild forum on the popular Flickr photography site, police have stepped up their patrol of this area. A place that had once been a secret source of inspiration for the art community is now involved in the underground photography movement.

Now that police are becoming more involved, accessing locations such as Nopeming and Graffiti Graveyard has become a forbidden fruit.

“Police are enforcing laws to protect property and people- even from themselves. They also are there to protect the city from potential lawsuits,” said Rauvola.

“The more ‘popular’ a banned location gets, the more likely something bad will happen, and the more enforcement is required to avoid something bad from happening."

Some photographers and other art students may feel that being in Graffiti Graveyard shouldn’t be such a big deal, and police shouldn’t be concerned. However, their involvement is understandable.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s the photography alone, but more the other mischievous activities that are going on in the areas,” said Drew Carlson, a photographer in Duluth.

Even though security has been stepped-up in Duluth, the attempt to keep trespassers out hasn’t affected the desire to get into these kinds of prohibited areas.

“It’s on my to-do list,” said Randall Cottrell, photographer who wants to do a shoot inside Nopeming.

For those who prefer to not break laws and trespass onto private property, there are other opportunities to photograph places where other people are scarce.

Nestled in the trees off of Lake Superior, off of Congdon Road, is another abandoned place that is perfect for photography projects.

“I like going there because it’s fun to imagine what it was like when it was new, and what it was used for,” said Jackie Stenvik, student at UMD.

“I’d like to know who wrote the graffiti, and what this place was before it burned down.”

While most photographers choose a location for its picturesque look, it is undeniable that it is fun to satiate your rebellious side every once in a while. But the smart thing to do would be to make the attempt to contact the owner of the property you would like to be on.

“Given enough of an incentive to go back (i.e. a great image that can only be captured there), I would first contact the city for approval. But after they say, "No", I would probably take my chances and go back, risking the fine for doing so,” said Rauvola.

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