Here at the SGE, we’re always thrilled to come across an explorer of abandoned places we’ve not seen before. In this edition of the Fellow Explorer’s Club, we’re excited to spend some time with Brad Perkins, a Chicago based explorer and photographer, whose adventures have taken him around the world, unearthing all manner of forgotten gems.
Society for Gentlemen Explorers (SGE): Was it always abandoned places that you’ve been mostly interested in? How did that start?
Brad Perkins (BP): I’ve always been interested in buildings and history. When I was a kid, there was a development being built behind where I lived and my friends and I would go explore the houses as they were being built. So I think that started it. I’ve also always loved traveling and do it frequently (at least when there’s not a pandemic) and have always enjoyed seeing things off the beaten path.
I also like how sunshine exposes abandoned buildings. It’s a great juxtaposition – bright sunshine is supposed to make you feel happy, but abandoned buildings can be sad places or at least give the illusion of sadness, so pairing them often makes for interesting photos.
So between living in a city, exploring many areas of the world and learning about and seeing old, often decaying buildings, and being curious about what happens to old buildings, it kind of snowballed into abandoned buildings. I really do believe that broken windows are the eyes to the past. And I think it snowballs from there. There was an abandoned house near me that I took some pictures inside of and it had pill bottles strewn about the kitchen and the living room was completely intact, like someone was coming home to watch TV. It’s those feelings that get me about abandoned places. People used to be there and now they’re not, and as a photographer, your job is to try to piece together why.
SGE: Whereabouts are you based, and how do you find all the places you photograph?
BP: I’m based in Chicago, USA. When I decide to go to a place, I do a lot of research on the history of the place and old buildings that are there, then I look through Google maps and Google searches to find out more information. Sites like Atlas Obscura are great helps, but so are Google searches and connections on Instagram. For less famous places or areas, a lot of it is trial and error – either walking around and looking for places or doing searches on local community sites. And I’ve been fortunate to have been invited on a few explorations, like the Joliet prison, an old factory in Gary, Indiana, and an old chicken feed factory south of Chicago.
SGE: What is it about abandoned places that draws you to them?
BP: I think abandoned places are kind of a microcosm of how a lot of people feel. They can be beautiful or really well put together on the outside, but troubled or lonely on the inside. Even if I don’t know or can’t find out the history of a place, I’m drawn to what could have happened there. I really want to chase stories and abandoned places are full of them. And I love the way nature often takes over these buildings and the different patterns and feelings you get from not only what’s left behind but how the building adjusts to being left behind.
SGE: What’s your favourite place you’ve been to? We particularly loved the abandoned prison in Chicago, and your work from Eastern Europe. Could you talk about some of the places you’ve been to and particular places that stood out.
BP: I go to the Dominican Republic every year for the holidays and on the North Coast are a lot of resorts that were either completely abandoned or never finished. Aside from the Dominican Republic being one of the best places to visit for a regular holiday – especially if you don’t stay on a resort and are able to interact with people – the abandoned resorts are incredible and tell a great story of what happens when tourism leaves an area.
The Joliet Prison was incredible – and I actually got in there legitimately. To have full run of the place for a couple of hours was an incredible experience. Seeing the cells and the gym and the chapel where so many prisoners suffered – it was not a good place – was overwhelming. There were a number of times shooting in there that I stopped to just gather my senses.
Old Joilet Prison, built just before the Civil War, was an imposing, Gothic correctional facility, that featured in Jimmy Cagney’s White Heat (1949), and provided the backdrop for the opening scene in the Blues Brothers, when ‘Joilet’ Jake Blues is picked up by his brother.
Slow to modernize, running water wasn’t installed until 1910, the famed prison finally closed down due to lack of funding in 2002.
BP: Other than that, my favorite places have been Cuba, Iceland, Eastern Europe, Guatemala and Cambodia. I was fortunate to go to Cuba in the brief time it was open to Americans and it’s such a contrast. There are so many great, decaying old buildings and factories, but then there are the hugely welcoming people.
Iceland was incredible both for its landscape and the buildings. We found an abandoned house in the middle of the countryside one day that was still full of everything. It was incredible. And it seemed like every step was a different landscape.
In Croatia, I had the joy of visiting Tito’s abandoned resorts. They were resorts the dictator built in the ‘60s for the military and the elite and they’re still standing as if they’re waiting for guests, except that they’re full of graffiti and, in one case, old receipts from the ‘80s.
They’re really incredible. They’re these huge abandoned hotels overlooking a beautiful ocean and mountain scene. Even if that was the only thing I saw in Eastern Europe, it would have been worth it. They were absolutely breathtaking. They were so ornate and had so much history behind them. But seeing the buildings with shells in them in Sarajevo from the the ‘90s wars and the juxtaposition of old and new in Croatia was a great experience.
In Guatemala, we went to both Antigua and Chichicastenango, which is a small town with a huge market.
Everything is old in those parts of Guatemala and the visions are striking. I took a picture of an old man swinging a pot of incense in front of a church and even though I don’t really do street photography, it’s one of my favorite shots I’ve taken.
Cambodia was similar to Eastern Europe in that they’re still getting over the genocide of the ‘70s and so much was destroyed. It’s a beautiful place with welcoming people and a lot of decaying buildings.
It’s hard to say what is a favorite place because I find beauty in all of the places I go, even if that means the more decaying, less touristy parts of those places.
SGE: Is there something top of your list that you want to go see once we can get back to traveling again?
BP: My next big trip is going to be Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. My wife and I have family from Latvia and Lithuania and aside from the history, I’ve seen a lot of promising photo opportunities from people I follow on Instagram. I would also love to go back to Cuba and I’d really like to go to Japan and South Korea. From pictures I’ve seen, I’d love to go to the Chernobyl area, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in this lifetime.
Our thanks to Brad for taking the time to share some of his adventures with us. You can find lots of treasures waiting to be discovered over on Brad Perkins’ Instagram account @bradperkinsphoto.