Jeffrey Stroup is a portrait and wedding photographer by day, based in Cleveland, Ohio. By night and in his spare time he’s a voracious explorer of the city, documenting the literal highs and lows of the urban experience. His blog Climbing The Fence is a fascinating portfolio of thought provoking photographs of the unseen city and disused, abandoned or reappropriated properties. All photos copyright Jeffrey Stroup from the Climbing The Fence blog.
The DIY Eye: When did you first start photographing abandoned buildings and what drew you to that subject matter?
Jeffrey Stroup: When I was young there was a park by my house with a pretty decent wooded area. The woods at the park had been an old dumping ground from before the neighborhood was developed and all of the houses built. So these woods were littered with rusty old junk. To me walking through those dense woods and stumbling across an old rusty mattress frame or some unidentifiable car parts, was like finding treasure. These relics used to belong to someone. How did they get here? Why were they discarded and left to rot?
Deep in the woods was also the foundation of a small old building. I would dig around in the dirt and try to find clues as to what this place was. I called it the Barber Shop after finding scissors and what looked like parts of a barber’s chair. Finding these things made me feel connected to the past which was comforting for some reason. A little over ten years ago I started to notice websites with photos of old abandoned buildings. Seeing these photos brought me back to my childhood and the excitement of exploring the woods and finding those old forgotten things. I was already out in the city taking photos of graffiti and run down old industrial areas so the transition to actually finding and going into abandoned buildings was very organic for me.
How do you find out about the empty buildings, do you have to do a lot of preliminary investigations to find new places and then arrange to go back, or is it more spontaneous?
When I first started exploring I would go online and find buildings that other people had explored and then go explore them myself. After the first few buildings I realized that I could easily find my own abandoned buildings. For years my friends and I would simply drive around in the rougher parts of town until we came across an abandoned building that we could get into.
It was easy. The city of Cleveland has worked hard to clean itself up over these last several years, leaving fewer and fewer abandoned structures to explore, making it increasingly difficult to find new places. So now there’s often a little more research involved, but spontaneity is just part of who I am so driving around aimlessly trying to find something to explore will always be my favorite approach.
There are obviously some inherent risks involved with climbing and entering abandoned or condemned property, what are your personal dos and don’ts and ways to stay safe?
Explore with people you trust, and always listen to your gut. I’ve been saved several times over the years by turning around when a bad feeling comes over me. The other thing I always tell people, is be aware of your surroundings. Be quiet and listen closely to the sounds around you. Always be looking around. The more aware you are, the more prepared you’ll be for possible dangers.
You’ve photographed commercial, community and domestic buildings, can you talk about some of your favourites and some of the feelings these properties evoke as you’re investigating and photographing them?
Some of my favorite types of buildings are schools and houses, they’re the most relatable, but old breweries are always exciting because the floor plans are usually quite confusing. In Cleveland we have a lot of factories. Some of them are absolutely massive, but they’re typically pretty empty inside and since I’ve never actually spent time in a functional factory, I can’t relate to the empty ones.
For me the most intriguing part of exploring and photographing abandoned buildings is the human connection. If I can go into a building and imagine what the place was like for the people who’s lives were spent there, then that to me is a great location regardless of what it was. That feeling of somehow being connected to the history of that place, that’s why I do it. It’s a powerful emotion that I can’t quite compare to anything else. I feel more alone in a crowded restaurant, than I do in an old abandoned building. I’m comforted by the past and that’s what keeps me coming back to these places.
What has been some of the strangest things you’ve seen in these places?
You never know what you’re going to find in these places. It’s probably a little bit inaccurate to call these places abandoned, because saying that a place is abandoned is implying that no one uses it or cares about it, but that’s rarely ever the case. Once these places are ignored and left behind by their original owners they take on an entirely new life. Neighborhood kids, photographers, vagrants, the homeless; they all visit these places, which is how you end up with high heels on the roof of a factory, or a bike in the hallway of an abandoned hotel. To me the strangest things I’ve found are the things that should have been removed before the building was abandoned. Things like patient records in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, or the personal belongings of the people that worked there such as framed photos of loved ones still sitting on desks.
As well as inside buildings you also do a lot of city photography in and around Cleveland. Have you always lived there and an you tell us a bit more about the city for those of us outside of the US? What are some of the pros and cons of the city and some of your favourite spots to photograph?
I grew up in a small suburban city about thirty-five minutes south of Cleveland, and growing up I would visit Cleveland for sports games and concerts. Cleveland was ripe with abandoned buildings and bridges and other great places to explore and photograph. Before I moved here I would make the drive to Cleveland at least two or three times a week. When I first started photographing Cleveland the city was dead. After the downtown businesses had closed for the day there wouldn’t be a soul on the street. It was like a ghost town, but that has changed dramatically. Now it’s hard to find a parking space and the storefronts that were once vacant are now filled with restaurants and shops. Downtown Cleveland’s occupancy rate is at 95% which is unheard of in most major cities.
The city of Cleveland went from a forgotten industrial slum, to a cultural mecca for young professionals and creatives, all while maintaining it’s historic roots and charm. It’s fantastic to see the city making a come back, but that means that a lot of my old favorite run down areas are now being redeveloped. It’s great for the city but it means that I’ve had to adjust my photo taking habits. Now instead of spending most of my time photographing abandonment, I’m out shooting the once empty streets that are now full of people. Instead of driving around looking for abandoned buildings I’ll drive around looking for fire escapes and ladders to climb. The exploring is still there but I’ve had to adjust to accommodate for the changing city.
You literally explore the highs and lows of the city by climbing bridges as well as investigating the subterranean worlds beneath the city. Can you tell us a bit about what you enjoy about photographing both of these different perspectives and do you prefer one over the other?
The bridges and rooftops and other structures that bring vertigo inducing heights to my photos bring a different kind of adrenaline rush. There is more inherent danger involved in accessing these places and unlike the confines of an abandoned building, here you’re exposed to the world around you. With these places I don’t get that feeling of being connected to the past like I do with abandonments, instead I’m motivated by the adventure and the sense of freedom that comes with being perched high above the ground.
The tunnels beneath the streets are probably my favorite places. With bridges and buildings people know that they’re there. They see them on their daily commutes. The subterranean world is something different though. No one sees that. It’s a completely hidden world. Being down there is a different kind of peaceful. It’s difficult to say that I prefer one of the other, I guess it all depends on my mood.
You must’ve found yourself in the occasional sketchy situation or close call from either scaling the heights of bridges or skulking around what lies beneath, can you can talk about some of those?
To be honest, I’m a very careful person, bordering on paranoid. Exploring and photography is a huge part of my life, but I’m not willing to die for it. I know what my limits are and I’m comfortable turning my back on what might be a really rewarding adventure and going home to eat pizza instead. Of course I’ve still had my fair share of close calls, but they usually just involve hiding from security or cops.
Your day job is as a portrait and wedding photographer, do you ever get to utilise your personal photography interests in that and does it influence your style at all in your day job?
I always love when I meet with a client for the first time and they tell me that they booked with me because they saw my photos of abandoned buildings. I’ve brought entire wedding parties into abandoned buildings, I’ve done family photos in abandoned buildings, I’ve done engagement photos in graffiti covered tunnels. I love when my career overlaps with my hobbies. I definitely let my personal photography influence my client work. I think that’s what sets my photos apart from most of the other portrait photographers.
What cameras are your current weapons of choice?
For client work and most of the urban exploration photography that I do, my Canon 5D Mark III is my go to camera, but I’ve always had a love for Polaroid cameras and for film in general. I almost always carry at least one film camera along with one of my DSLRs.
Huge thanks to Jeff for talking about his work and experiences. Find out more about his professional work here and see more of his adventures around Cleveland here. You can also follow him on Twitter, Instagram and check out his prints and products from his Society 6 store.