Dover photographer explores abandoned properties and says it's "Lara Croft-ish."
Shelley Koon is like the action heroine Tomb Raider, except she replaced her guns with a camera. Koon has a love for exploring large abandoned properties like factories and photographing inside of them.
“It is a little Lara Croft-ish. It’s fun,” Koon said. “I call it ‘adventure hiking.’ We’re in these places and we might hike three miles inside of them. We might be in there for eight hours. So you’re carrying water and you’re carrying food. I carry a first-aid kit. It’s literally like hiking.”
Adventure-hiking has helped Koon become one of 19 artists awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship for 2020 by the Delaware Division of the Arts.
She won $6,000 in the category of “established professional award” for multiple photographs she submitted featuring abandoned hospitals, asylums and factories she photographed in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
The work of Koon and her peers will be featured in a group exhibit, “Award Winners XX,” at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover from June 5 to July 23.
This year’s winners were selected from 139 Delaware artists representing disciplines, including choreography and composing to writing and photography.
Koon is also required to have her own solo exhibit before the end of the year, but she hasn’t chosen a date yet, she said.
Why do you enjoy shooting abandoned factories, hospitals and asylums?
I’m fascinated by places that have been vacated by humans, and by what went on in the walls, why was it vacated, and why do we leave these ruins behind? These are massive buildings and you’re like, “how did all these people just vacate this area and never come back? Was it like [the lost colony of] Roanoke where the entire town disappeared?”
Aside from asbestos, what other things do you have to look out for when photographing in abandoned places?
Things fall from the ceiling all the time. Things fall from the walls. I had a whole entire wall sheet-off on me once. I was backing up to take a picture and backed into the plaster covering a wall. All the plaster came off. It was the loudest thing ever. Everybody [I was with] came running to me. I would’ve been in danger had it hit me in the head.
Luckily it didn’t and slid off behind me. It was the strangest thing. But on the same day, one of my friends had a chunk of the ceiling fall off and hit her in the head. She does a lot of caving and said, “Man, I’m gonna start wearing my caving helmet” [laughs]. I’ve had friends fall through floors. Staircases can be very deceiving and dangerous, especially metal staircases, because they rot where they’re connected. You learn all of this when you go out and do this type of photography.
Do you sneak into these abandoned properties?
I have permission to be in a lot of the places. I will actually call the owners up and will tell them what I’m doing. A lot of the pieces I submitted to the Division of the Arts were done in Scranton, Pennsylvania at the old lace factory. The lace factory stood abandoned for many years.
The interesting thing about it is they came in during mid-shift at this place and shut it down. People were working and they said, “Go home.” All of the looms that were in the room -- and the looms are two-stories high and 50-feet long, they’re massive pieces -- were still threaded. So it became this time capsule. It sat empty for a long time. People would break in and some tore it up. But the people who bought it tried to save as much of it as possible, and maybe turn it into a brewery area.
What are your plans for the $6,000?
There’s some equipment I need to purchase. There is a big workshop in Saint Louis that I’ve been wanting to go to, and I’ll be able to go to that this year. Then there’s another workshop coming up in November and I’m hoping I’ll be able to make that. I love getting out, going to these big workshops that are hands-on where I can work with other photographers whose work I’ve seen, know and love, and learn from them. The biggest part of photography is getting out there, photographing, learning and being with other people who do things differently, so that you can see how they do it.
What was your reaction to winning?
Disbelief at first. This was the third year I’d applied. Last year I didn’t get the grant, but I was recognized by the Delaware Division of Arts of the Arts with a show in August, featuring all of my work, which was kinda cool. It wasn’t this past August, it was the August before. So when I won this year, I don’t know what I expected. When I opened the email I probably squealed or did something girlie like that.