GARY, IN — While many photographers are on a quest to capture beauty on film, some find that beauty in urban decay. They shoot pictures of abandoned factories, crumbling buildings, and places overrun by neglect and nature.
For the last 15 years, Jerry Olejniczak has been capturing the haunting emptiness of the places that time forgot.
“This has all been kind of ruined. The roof has fallen in some of the walls a little bit,” said Olejniczak as he makes his way through a now popular church for urban explorers.
Closed for nearly 50 years, the Methodist City Church in Gary, Indiana now lies in ruins.
“Some places kind of hide their secrets. Not this church,” he said.
The pews have turned to dust, stained glass windows shattered, all the aftermath of white flight in the early ’60s and ’70s.
“They had moved out of Gary, and they were just commuting back for services. And so, there was just a matter of time before it finally was shuttered,” said Olejniczak.
Amidst the twisted metal, debris and decay, Olejniczak sees its haunting beauty.
“Honestly, this was, I think, the first place that I came to where I was just like, ‘Oh, OK. I think I would like to do photography on places like this.’”
The trend of urbex photography, short for urban exploration, has become trendy in recent years.
“It's just to sort of document and to celebrate the beauty that the places will still have. Even long after they've been abandoned.”
It’s an eerie genre of photography that has pejoratively been referred to as ‘ruin porn.’ It’s something Olejniczak takes exception to.
“’Ruin porn’ I would say is more exploitative and more shallow, whereas I'd like to think that what I'm doing is a little classy, like erotica.”
This hobby has taken him across the rust belt. He’s traveled from Tennessee and Pennsylvania to Colorado in search of forgotten spaces to photograph.
He recently published his first book.
“This definitely takes a Goth sensibility to appreciate this,” said Olejniczak. “But if you're of that mind, then, yeah, I mean, how can you be how can you stand in here and not think this is beautiful?”
Exploring these sites can be dangerous, and even illegal. While he tries to avoid trespassing, Olejniczak recommends shooting with a partner.
“I've had scrapes and bruises,” he said. “But no, nothing like serious.”
But there is one decisively absent element from his pictures. There are no humans in his photographs.
“That's on purpose because,” he said. “I'm not here to appear in selfies and I'm not here to stage a photoshoot. I'm trying to make you feel when you look at my photograph, what I felt when I was here.”
Those feelings he says were especially extraordinary on a visit to the ghost city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine.
“Three days after the explosion, they evacuated in three hours,” said Olejniczak. “The opportunity to see a town of that size that was just left in a heartbeat is like nothing else I've ever seen.”
The unseen stories left behind by decay and abandonment he says are what draws him to these places.
“I want a nice intersection of past lives and current drama,” said Olejniczak.
Both are elements you won’t find in short supply inside his evocative images.