PetaPixel

Black Friday: Haunting Documentary Photo Series Captures Abandoned Malls in the US

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Cleveland-based photographer Seph Lawless‘s first job was in a bustling Ohio mall. Today, that same mall appears in his photo series and book Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall — a haunting series that pays homage to these victims of the recession and the online shopping revolution.

His photos really need no further introduction, and so instead of spending time describing what you could simply scroll down and see, we sat down with Lawless (digitally) to talk about the hows and whys behind this eerie photo book.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PetaPixel: What was your inspiration for this project?

Seph Lawless: I wanted Americans to see what was happening to their country from the comfort of their suburban homes and smartphones. I didn’t think the problems we face as a country would change unless we faced these problems and I thought we could start by simply looking at them.

I knew if I portrayed these images creatively enough, they would have a very deep impact on the viewer. And if you’re an artist that can move someone with your art even for a brief moment, then I think it’s the artists’ responsibility to challenge the viewer and promote some form of activism.

Art is much too powerful not to fully engage it, even exploit it, if it means the betterment of humanity. So I decided to shove these images into as many people’s faces as I could. I used popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to share these images and it was a very effective way to reach Americans.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PP: How did you go about finding these places? And getting access?

SL: Just traveling around. Most cities in the Rust Belt region of America are filled with places because of loss of manufacturing jobs that resulted in massive population loss. Leaving literal ghost towns scattered throughout parts of Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Getting in is a challenge at times. Boards can be hard to remove. Sometimes climbing to even get to a point of entry is dangerous.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PP: What gear did you use? Do you have a particular approach you take each time you photograph an abandoned mall?

SL: I use a Nikon D-90 with various lenses, tripods and most recently video equipment for an upcoming documentary.

PP: Did you run across any major challenges? (beyond finding and getting access to the malls)

SL: Not so much for this project, but my last project and book called Autopsy of America was filled with challenges and stories. Several of the abandoned homes and building had derelicts, drug users and criminals.

I was approached several times and even attacked. Entering these abandoned dwellings are like entering another world; a world where anything can happen… and often does. I was photographing the inside of an abandoned home in East Cleveland. They would later find a dead body in that home that a serial killer left there just days later.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PP: Do you have a favorite mall or shooting experience that arose from this project?

SL: North Randall Mall because it was beautiful. The architecture was brilliant and you really could see the Gruen Transfer technique popularized by Victor Gruen who came up with the concept of the shopping mall. I grew up in that mall and to be there during this project was surreal. I was there for 8 hours the last day during a thunderstorm. It was dark but I didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PP: What about a least favorite? Any scary situations or crazy encounters?

SL: I remember this one huge factory had a mentally ill homeless man living it in with his dog. Several times I was trapped on floors as he led his dog around looking for me. It was like a bad horror movie. I knew I could outsmart a human but I was no match for an animal. I was vulnerable… that was a scary time.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PP: Any interesting tidbits or surprising factoids that you feel our readers will appreciate?

SL: I never crop my pictures. I frame them accordingly and see every shot in my head before I shoot it or I don’t shoot it. I treat my digital camera like it’s an analog camera. These kids nowadays shoot a camera like it’s a machine gun and as a result their work comes across cold and uninspiring. I take my time, oftentimes waiting for the sun and light to align perfectly before I take a shot.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PP: If you had to describe this project/book and its purpose in just a few sentences, what would you say?

SL: The problem with America is there’s not enough television shows about pawn shops and storage lockers. Americans have grown numb as their country is literally crumbling apart. I want my images to send chills down their spine, so Americans demand better for their country. I think fear can be an effective way to get results, but only after every other option has been exhausted, and I think we’ve long passed that.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

PP: Finally, what are your photography plans going forward? What are you looking forward to in 2014?

SL: To find beauty in the most grotesque things is a gift. I plan on continuing to challenge the viewer in that sense. I’ll be photographing Ohio Death Row inmates in 2014. The photographs will be an attempt to humanize them through portraits alone. That will be on July 4, 2014 as most will be out enjoying their freedom and watching fireworks, I’ll be in a prison hopefully creating something powerful and moving.

Recently, two American professors from two major Universities have been using my photographs to inspire creative writing/poetry among their students. A Pakistani professor in Lahore has also been doing the same. Texas A&M recently ordered both of my books for their university library after a sociology professor requested it. My new book slated for fall of 2014 will sharing these students poems along with the images of mine that inspired them. It will be released by a leading publisher by November 2014.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

Credit: Photo by Seph Lawless.

We want to sincerely thank Seph for taking the time to answer our questions and for allowing us to share his photography. To see more of his work and follow along on his future adventures, be sure to head over to Seph’s website and give him a follow on Facebook.

And if you loved these abandoned mall images as much as we did, you can pick up Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall by clicking here.


Image credits: Photographs by Seph Lawless and used with permission


 
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  • afex505

    slighty OT, but many hot urbex sites are still patrolled, especially if the property is still owned by someone (which for these malls is very likely)

    best example i can think of is the ruined Six Flags in New Orleans that was underwater during Katrina, they just about have a dedicated cop on a beat there.

  • Eden Wong

    I’ve got an extra bubble level lying around somewhere that I can give him…

  • thing unreal

    I’m as liberal, anti-establishment, and pretentious as it gets – but this guy is just something else. Really interesting subject matter with potential completely wasted. And to all the crybabies sad about his feelings, you should always be prepared to be torn apart when presenting your work in public, and you should have enough self-awareness and honesty with yourself, that anything anyone says shouldn’t be a surprise to you, even if you disagree. If anything, i respect brutally harsh criticism more than empty praise. He’s bad, simply put. Not in a horrible, never going to be good way, but in a way that he really needs to reevaluate his opinion of himself and his work, and what he wants to accomplish.

  • ssacke

    I know that stupid “Murricunts” are dimwits without knowledge of the world. That’s why they don’t know the difference between US and America. Are you one of them?

  • BoneDiddlie

    Insurance reasons maybe?

  • BoneDiddlie

    Quantity over quality and it looks like this guy was nervous while he was shooting. Easily could have spent more time setting up better shots without having to post process the hell out of them to salvage something.

  • BoneDiddlie

    Oh damn, just saw this was for his book. At $100 a pop for this. Good lord.

  • Jim Macias

    What is your problem?

  • Bay

    Really? The only thing worse than the dull, uninspired photos was reading his pretentious interview. For some reason I can’t get the image of Stewie from Family Guy teasing Brian about his novel out of my head: “So, um, you’re going to make some art, are ya? Gonna have it full of full of meaning and purpose, hmm? Gonna, save humanity? Maybe some abandoned malls, death row inmates? Yeah?”

    Cliff notes for the people who look at the first two images and realize all the others are virtually the same, and skip to the comments:
    “if it means the betterment of humanity”

    “I want my images to send chills down their spine, so Americans demand better for their country…only after every other option has been exhausted, and I think we’ve long passed that.” [my photos are the last hope for change in America]

    “I never crop my pictures. I frame them accordingly and see every shot in my head before I shoot it or I don’t shoot it. I treat my digital camera like it’s an analog camera.”

    “[my work] is a gift”

    “[my book] will be released by a leading publisher”

    “I knew if I portrayed these images creatively enough, they would have a very deep impact on the viewer.”

    Judging by the comments on here, I think the results fall well short of his opinion of himself and his work…

  • Randell

    Just a stack of bland images taken of soulless buildings. The demise of the shopping mall is one of the most wondrous events that happened because of the economic crash.
    Hopefully they won’t build anymore of these terrible buildings, and the regeneration of local businesses can begin.
    Perhaps it was because this photographer spent so much of his youth in these godless, character void mausoleums is the reason his photographs reflect such little emotion.

  • Dan

    Thanks for the link – Brian’s work is much more interesting!

  • http://brandonrechten.com Brandon Rechten

    The price-tag certainly makes him come off more like a capitalist than an “activist.” And that’s just for the 8×10 version…

    A few years ago I paid $60 for Robert Polidori’s gorgeous 15×12 photo book Havana. Sadly, it looks like it’s out of print now, but a single page out of that book blows away everything “Seph Lawless” has ever produced combined. I highly recommend checking his work out.

  • Jim Macias

    Why do related links get denied here?

  • Sally

    I have several Polidori books. “Havana” is my favorite. It’s gorgeous. And it is out of print.

  • ssacke

    Stupid “Murrycunts”… Are you one?

  • http://brandonrechten.com Brandon Rechten

    I was shooting abandoned buildings back in college and my professor introduced me to his book Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl — fell in love with his work immediately. It was definitely a turning-point for me, photographically.

    Do you have his book After The Flood? I’m considering picking that one up before it goes out of print as well.

  • http://vikaskhair.blogspot.com Vikas Khair

    Thanks Chris, Brian’s series is definitely better shot and is more impactful.