People ask night photographers all sorts of questions. One of the most common is: what’s the scariest, creepiest place you have ever photographed?
The last stop for almost 1000 souls
The imposing Gothic stone structure, Moundsville Penitentiary in West Virginia, was the last stop for murderers, rapists, and thieves. Almost one thousand men lost their lives here. Between 1876 and 1995, these prisoners were hung, electrocuted, bludgeoned, or committed suicide. Some met grisly deaths in the outside weightlifting area.
Moundsville was bizarrely violent. It made the United States Department of Justice’s Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list.
Some met their deaths at the hands of prison guards. Moundsville broke men, leaving them shattered. Some feel that these tortured prisoners still remain within the large stone walls.
Moundsville takes its name from Native American burial mounds across the street. Death was no stranger to these parts.
Dark. Creepy. Imposing. Haunted. Old. Abandoned. Strange.
Three of us night photographers could not resist. During a humid summer in 2017, Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I photographed at Moundsville. At night. With no lights on.
Preparing for night photography within the stone walls
We arrived shortly after sunset. We were mobile, having all our camera equipment, water, snacks, and accessories in backpacks. We shuffled past “Sparky”, the infamous electric chair that sent many to their deaths. In the hallway, Tim passed out Motorola CP110 radios. These had a range of 1.5 miles. We were not sure if their signal would go through several thick stone walls, but it’s what we had. We would use these to communicate anything, typically using it to let others know where we were going so we wouldn’t interfere with each other or call for help.
The Sugar Shack
The Sugar Shack is dark in more than one way. This was a recreation room located downstairs, and is the most infamous room at Moundsville. This room was basically a free-for-all, a place where the guards looked the other way, a place where gambling, fighting, rape, and murder took place.
The sky was still relatively bright. However, I wanted to begin photographing. I chose the darkest place. This was the Sugar Shack.
I immediately got the creeps upon coming down here. I am typically not prone to being spooked. However, this room had a really ominous feel. I set up for one photo. My headlamp suddenly died. It was pitch dark. I could not see my hand in front of me. To finish off the photo, I counted steps to the wall and “light painted” the room with my ProtoMachines. I then packed up and left. One photo was enough.
Blood Red Cells
I photographed the Block J & K cells. This was foreboding. My footsteps echoed throughout. I decided to go with this, choosing a blood red photo, shining the light in such a way that the bars of the prison cells showed on the floor. I did this with every cell. The entire image was red except for some of the lights from outside shining in through the glass brick windows. At one point, something clattered and sounded like it dropped to the floor. I whirled around. No one was there. I never knew what fell.
Near the end of the evening, the radio squawked. “We have to be out of here in twelve minutes!” I looked at my phone. Sure enough, it was almost time to leave. I was upstairs. Broken glass, shattered ceramics, and lots of dust lay everywhere, creating scraping sounds as I walked. I had twelve minutes. I had really wanted to photograph the psych ward. This lay on the other side of a large community room, which I had to cross.
I whipped around, shining my ProtoMachines light. I was met with a rush of wings and moving air. Bats! As if this Gothic stone building weren’t enough, bats also lived here.
I peered into the medical room in the psych ward. I could do this. I set up the camera quickly, shined my light into the room, and focused. I tripped the shutter and illuminated the room with red and blue light from the ProtoMachines into the room. It was pitch dark, so it didn’t matter how long the exposure was. It was all dependent on my light. I wanted to photograph quickly since I had to get back to the front, which was at least five minutes away. 24 seconds later, I was done. I closed the shutter. The photo looked good. I could now leave the psych ward. I would no longer disturb the bats. Or anything else.
VISIT ME, VISIT ME!
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos. My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols