Jason Baker knows haunted houses. He’s spent more than a decade photographing abandoned buildings across New England, and the images are downright eerie.
On a recent trip to an old police station in Fall River, Baker aimed his lens toward one of the jail cells. Inside, layers of paint were peeling off the walls like curling parchment paper. A lonely white porcelain toilet stood out starkly amid the grime, dust, and debris covering the floor. Rust covered the cell’s bars.
As he made his way through the rest of the building, he snapped more pictures of shadowy corridors and empty rooms, silent now but once the scene of countless sad stories.
The deserted police station is just one of many vacant properties that Baker has photographed in his quest to document as many decaying places as he can. It’s a mission that’s brought him to shuttered insane asylums, hospital wards, and schools all over New England.
And he’s not the only one doing it.
Baker is just one of many devotees of urban exploration, or “urbexing,” a pastime that has surged in popularity in recent years.
In many ways, it’s not a new phenomenon at all. Man’s fascination with exploring forbidden spaces goes back centuries. But thanks to social media and photo-sharing sites like Instagram, the (sometimes illegal) hobby that was once on the fringe has gained momentum. (Just search for the hashtag “#urbex” or “#abandoned” on Instagram, and you’ll find millions of photos of derelict buildings.)
According to Google Trends data, searches for the phrases “abandoned buildings near me” and “abandoned places near me” have been climbing steadily over the past decade, and they hit an all-time high point during the summer of 2019.
“A lot more people are doing it now,” the 38-year-old Baker said.
Baker’s interest in documenting historic places began in 2004, when he went on a tour of Danvers State Hospital. He’s been photographing institutions ever since.
Venturing inside old buildings can be dangerous. There’s the risk of being arrested (which has happened to him three times) or encountering squatters (who aren’t always friendly) or breathing in asbestos (which he said is present in “99 percent” of the places that he visits). Lead paint, empty elevator shafts, and other hazards abound. Rotting floorboards can give way at any moment, and gaping holes can be hidden by the darkness.
“You gotta watch where you’re stepping,” Baker said. “I’ve fallen through floors before.”
It’s easy to lose your way in the darkness, especially in the tunnels that lie beneath some institutions.
“They’re like a maze,” Baker said. “You can get very, very lost.”
He’s seen some strange things in the course of his travels. Autopsy tables. Medical records. Artwork drawn by long-departed patients. Rusty wheelchairs. Decades-old doctors’ schedules tacked to bulletin boards. Stacks of microscope slides containing blood samples taken long ago.
On a recent visit to Tewksbury State Hospital, Baker photographed a decrepit bowling alley that’s tucked away in the basement of an old chapel building on the campus. The two lonely wooden lanes were covered with dust and buckled with age.
These days, Baker said, he gets permission to visit most of the places he photographs. He also shoots a lot of museums and historic houses that are open to the public.
But whenever he gets an opportunity to shoot an abandoned property, he jumps at the chance because there aren’t many left. Several of the institutions Baker has photographed have since been demolished or redeveloped.
Baker said his goal is to document these places before they disappear, so they’re not forgotten. He hopes that when future generations see a photo of a place that no longer exists, it might spark their curiosity and make them want to learn more about it.
“I feel like I’m keeping memories alive,” he said.
To view more of Baker’s photos, visit www.instagram.com/jasonbakerphotography.
Emily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.