Despite the deep-freeze of a cold January day, a lone photographer moved swiftly through the graffiti-covered halls of what was once a bustling psychiatric center in the heart of Long Island in New York.
The photographer, John Lazzaro, explained how he'd been to the remains of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center hundreds of times, and the speed at which he walked through rooms filled with pools of water and mangled medical equipment suggested that his claim was true.
Lazzaro had previously published a book featuring photos from the facility, "The Walls Still Talk: A Photographic Journey Through Kings Park Psychiatric Center" and more recently his travels have taken him on a far more epic journey documenting such abandoned spaces all across New York State, all collected in his new book, "A Vanishing New York: Ruins across the Empire State."
Though on a technical level, Lazzaro is engaging in what is commonly known as "Urban Exploration," or "UrbEx," He said he doesn't like to think of himself as an urban explorer.
"I like to think of myself as a documentary photographer," Lazzaro said. "I'm documenting something, telling the story behind it."
Exploring these abandoned spaces is a sometimes risky proposition. Walking around Kings Park Psychiatric Center, which was largely abandoned in the mid-90s, reveals signs of easily visible decline. Roofs have caved in. Shattered glass litters every stairwell. A thick layer of rust covers any and all machinery still sitting in the buildings on the property. Indeed, a look through Lazzaro's new book reveals that such sights are not all that uncommon in his quest to document these spaces. He says that he's pursued these photographs in these places as a passion project; It's his event photography and retail work that pays the bills, but it's this style of documentary photography that keeps him pursuing the perfect image.
"There's something humble about it. I don't really enjoy going to one-year-old birthday parties and taking photos," Lazzaro said. "I'd rather be breathing in asbestos and black mold and taking in the history of an abandoned place."
Indeed, at least at Kings Park Pyschiatric Center, there is quite a bit of unabated asbestos, but that isn’t the only danger. Lazzaro’s travels have taken him from lower New York’s Sea View Hospital in Staten Island, to the Saratoga County Homestead in the Capital Region to the Buffalo Central Terminal in Western New York. Not all of the places are easily accessible, and Lazzaro takes care not to cause damage or attract undue attention.
"My goal is to take photos, leave only footprints, and just tell a story," Lazzaro said. "I certainly go in with the utmost respect."
Shooting the Spaces
When making his haunting imagery, Lazzaro brings in a few tools to help him create the look he wants for his photo. He's obsessed with making sure that architecture looks just right, that straight lines really look straight, and to that end, you'll often find a Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Lens affixed to his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR. The lens is not a common choice for urban explorers, as it's more common in product and architectural photography, but it's something that Lazzaro says lends his photos a unique style without resorting to gimmicks such as a fisheye lens. He shoots at f/22 on a tripod to get deep depth of field for his scenes.
"When I shoot, I like to think in terms of geometry," Lazzaro said.
Lazzaro also shoots the occasional aerial shot with a DJI Mavic Mini.
He didn't always have high-end gear though, starting with a humble Canon EOS 60D that he bought off of eBay after selling his collection of Magic the Gathering cards. He bought it with an 18-135mm kit lens and then later added the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM Lens. Most of his first book was shot with that combination.
He favors natural light, only occasionally lighting a scene with the flashlight on his phone. Indeed, on the aforementioned trip to the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, while a few parts were so dark they could only be navigated with a flashlight, most of the buildings are awash in natural light pouring through all sorts of broken windows and holes in ceilings. It's crazy and beautiful at the same time.
Lazzaro often scours the internet for news reporting on abandoned spaces, looking up the history and going in with the intent on creating photos that put his own spin on a place. He looks up the history, so he knows just what he's getting into. Other times, he happens to be driving around when he stumbles upon a building or collection of buildings worth exploring. Other times, it's the curiosity of the buildings in his backyard, as was the case with the Psychiatric Center in Kings Park.
Whatever the case, Lazzaro's books provide a window into parts of New York that aren't often given a second thought by many passers-by.
"A lot of places you find, you just happened to be driving and you see - that's an old building, why is it closed?" Lazzaro said.
Lazzaro offered these thoughts as he made his way through the winding corridors of one of the buildings at Kings Park. As he roamed floor by floor, he pointed out inspection records on the wall that had last been signed off on in 1995. He pointed out derelict elevator equipment as he approached the rooftop. And finally, once he threw the door open a view of what was once a beautiful courtyard greeted visitors on the roof. A gazebo, overgrown with weeds was visible, and the rest of the buildings sat in silence, ready for a photo opp.
"I think with all of us, there's a subconscious obsession that we have, or interest, in what makes some place abandoned? What's the story behind it?" Lazzaro said. "I've always been fascinated by that."
Lead image used with permission from John Lazzaro