Forgotten Memphis Captured By Photographers, Artists

Image of an overgrown and abandoned room

This article was originally published in The Memphis Flyer in 2015.

Ashley Evans* stands inside of a hospital, holding her camera. She’s taking photos, and her subject is about to get into a tub for the perfect shot. The building, however, has been abandoned for decades.

Evans is a photographer, and she joins the slew of creative types like photographers, artists, and documentarians who practice urban exploration, or “urbanex,” investigating and exploring abandoned buildings.

Unwritten rules and mutual understandings of the hobby dictate that, while urbanex itself is inherently illegal, explorers should follow the hiking code: “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.” Those photographs are what dictate the trips for explorers like Evans and Nate Packard, another photographer who said he “dabbles” in the hobby. Their stories are not uncommon — it’s far from unusual to see abandoned building interiors line portfolios for many Memphis photographers.

Urbanex seems to be passed down to the next generation in creative circles. Both Packard and Evans were introduced to and explored some of the same places, and it’s not surprising for amateur photographers to get their feet wet in capturing abandoned buildings. Before its revival, the Tennessee Brewery was one particular hotspot for beginning urban explorers, who were often guided by those who were more experienced.

Evans found her way to urbanex through another artist, who recommended she try it after gathering exterior photos of abandoned buildings.

“It seemed like [abandoned buildings] would make for interesting backgrounds for photography,” Evans said. “If we had portraits to take, for instance, we would take them there. But it’s [also] kind of an adrenaline rush. You’re going into this dangerous place where a piece of a staircase could fall, or you could get some really beautiful shots with natural light coming in.”

Sometimes the dangers mount even higher. Masks are required for some expeditions, like mold, dust, asbestos, and other chemicals linger in the air of some buildings. For other trips, things like security guards stand in the way of complete exploration. Evans’ most recent trip to a psychiatric hospital in Bolivar had to be done during the day, lest their flashlights tip off security guards circling the perimeter. Its proximity to the current facility that took its place was also daunting for the group.

The draw for photographers like Packard and Evans are multifold. It’s not just the aesthetic, they said, though it doesn’t hurt.

“A lot of the time, [we would go] because you could see something cool,” Packard said. “For the Brewery, it was the view. In the hospital, [it was] seeing all the stuff and what it was like. There was one room where if you talked, your voice disappeared. There were no echoes. There’s always something that draws you in. It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s go into this random building we just saw.’”

For Evans, there is a creepy factor. At the abandoned psychiatric hospital, she spotted personal belongings in a check-in room, full of tennis shoes, purses, and suitcases, all left behind.

“When I see these things, it puts these items into a story that may not be real, but it gives you some context as to what went down there,” Evans said. “We found all these weird medical instruments we had never heard of. It takes you to a different time, especially if they’re so intact like this place was. There were still beds made. There are boxes of [medical] files for patients.”

There’s no Yelp reviews for urban exploration, and the websites that detail hazards and showcase photo albums online are mostly outdated. Word of mouth is crucial to stay up-to-date on potential exploration sites.

The most obvious consequence is arrest, where urban explorers can be charged with trespassing. But urban explorers have, so far, not had any issues, according to Karen Rudolph, a public information officer with the Memphis Police Department.

“To the best of my knowledge, we have not had any problems with urban explorers,” Rudolph said. (Requests to elaborate were not answered.)

Other risks seem apparent: injuries, crime, stumbling upon something you weren’t supposed to. Evans even had a tick stuck to her back after one particular night — “potential Lyme disease,” she quickly added to the list.

*Name has been changed.