Photographing a Ghost Town Part 1: Researching and Understanding Your Location

June 4, 2010 · 7 comments

in Tips & Tricks

In the first part of this exploration on ghost towns, I want to introduce where I decided to shoot and what aspects of ghost town locations are important to understand when taking on this type of photography.

I am from Minneapolis Minnesota but have always wanted to photograph a part of the northern iron range of my state called North Hibbing. You can see the location here.

I have a personal interest because my mother grew up in a town nearby and my grandfather was once a miner in the iron ore mines. It was also a location I could drive to in a day and was not overly dangerous to shoot and did not require additional lighting. I had also learned much of the history while growing up and so had a good understanding of the overall space and what details would be interesting to add. I happened to luck out on the day that I took the photographs that a rain storm was moving in. The darkness and clouds added to the overall spookiness of the location.

While the experience of shooting this location is personal, it lends itself to several ideas when shooting a similar location for other photographers. A large part of taking on shooting a ghost town or abandoned location is to do some research ahead of time and hold a personal interest. This helps the photographer pay attention to many details that may otherwise be missed. It also helps as you walk around the location to shoot the aspects of the space that make it unique and different from other ghost towns. If you know the positives and negatives that may come up, it will help you pick the right time of year, plan for possible lighting issues, choose color or black and white for particular shots and to prep with other supplies for the timing it may take to shoot the location.

North Hibbing has an interesting story as it was a section of the town that was actually moved to another location in order to accommodate the Hull Rust Mine. The idea of moving an entire city, which, along with the phenomenal moving cost in 1919 of $16,000,000, gained national attention for Hibbing in the early 1920’s.  The move started in 1919.  It took two years to move 185 houses and 20 businesses places.  The actual move was accomplished by using horses, cables and laying log rollers. Buildings were pulled along at a rate of about 750 feet per hour.  Some of the larger buildings were cut in half and moved.  Although all the structures are gone, part of North Hibbing still remains.  There are streets, curbs, sidewalks, trees and old foundations. Other parts of North Hibbing are gone because they were situated over the Hull Rust Mine.

The Hull Rust Mine is the largest open mine pit in the world. First ore shipments from the big pit were made in 1895.  What visitors see is a spectacular man-made Grand Canyon of nearly 1,600 acres.  At its maximums, the area covered is over three miles long, a mile wide and 535 feet deep.

View of the Hull Rust Mine

©Elizabeth Anderson, May 2010

View of the Hull Rust Mine

©Elizabeth Anderson, May 2010

The mammoth pit is located where the original town of Hibbing once stood. Pioneer Frank Hibbing obtained the first lease to mine ore in the area in December 1891.  Beginning as an underground mine of small proportions, the land eventually became one vast open pit as other mines began to develop and emerge.

Since ore shipments began from the Hull Rust in 1895, over 519 million tons of waste material and nearly 690 million tons of iron ore have been removed from the pit.  Someone has figured that all the material removed – approximately 1.2 billion gross tons – is equivalent to digging a small tunnel from Minnesota through the core of the earth and out the other side.

I was very excited to shoot North Hibbing because it was a unique location for a ghost town which fights the conventional “Old-West” imagery of most abandoned towns. Because it is located in northern Minnesota, there are a lot of trees and grass in the surrounding location. These are part of the details as a photographer that are important to take into account. How can these differences in this location be taken advantage of in your photos? My belief is to capitalize on them and use every small detail to your advantage. This will make shooting this location different from others in the same genre.

Grass Growing Through the Sidewalk

©Elizabeth Anderson, May 2010

Flowers Growing Out of the Foundation

©Elizabeth Anderson, May 2010

Old Housing Foundation

©Elizabeth Anderson, May 2010

There is something to be said for spontaneity and shooting things in the space that jump out at you. There are many things you cannot research and these are also worth taking into consideration and taking advantage of. In a ghost town location that you may not be familiar with and are shooting for the first time, researching and understanding your subject can help you approach the space with greater clarity. It is also a fascinating way to appreciate and feel a connection to the photographs you are taking.

The next part of this series on photographing ghost towns is adding a human touch to an abandoned location with your choice of composition and details.

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Elizabeth has written 21 awesome articles for us at Photoble

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