Guerilla photography may be the best way to describe Walter Arnold’s passion for recording little known, often abandoned, and sometimes downright dangerous subjects.
There was the time a group of heavies in a black SUV chased him away from an abandoned factory in Scranton, Pennsylvania; the time he crept along a creaking catwalk with missing pieces, a hundred feet over the floor of a derelict coal processing plant; and the time the owner of a scrap metal yard in rural Florida produced a very angry rattlesnake for Walter’s inspection. “In the end, that’s part of the fun for me,” Walter says. “The risks involved, the thrill and excitement of exploring a place that’s off-limits.”
Walter’s developed a fine taste for, in his words, “all things abandoned” in his photographic explorations of lonely and forgotten sites up and down the east coast of the United States, displayed on his website The Digital Mirage (blog.thedigitalmirage.com). Particularly striking are the melancholy remains of places once filled with people and laughter, and bright with pastel colors, like the old Grossinger’s resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Ghosts stalk these pictures of rusting bar stools, mildewed deck chairs and a vast, empty swimming pool splotched with mold and slime. “So many of the places I visit have endless stories to tell and wonderful, amazing histories,” Walter says. “I find great joy in presenting a subject that doesn’t fit the traditional definition of beauty.”
Walter is part of a growing corps of adventurous photographers in the Urban Exploration movement, or URBEX, a new take on the street photography of artists like Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank. URBEX photographers are intent on finding the ethereal in the mundane, the grittier the better. Much of Walter’s work has been shot at locations that are the detritus of industrial America — an abandoned lace factory, an airplane graveyard, collapsing coal plants — or social relics of past generations, like Grossinger’s or abandoned sanitariums long emptied of their troubled inmates. “I do a fair amount of research into a location before exploring it,” Walter explains, including Internet searches and talking to people who’ve already visited a site. “It always important to know how ‘active’ a location is before going there. Squatters, gangs and drug dealers are definitely a concern — oh, and cops too, sometimes.” If a site is still under private ownership, Walter will attempt to contact the owner, but he prefers sites that have long been left to their own fate. URBEX enthusiasts are, in essence, trespassers, but Walter insists his first rule is ‘Do No Harm.’ “I don’t force my way into any location, nor do I destroy or damage or take anything with me when I leave. I do this purely for the sake of art,” Walter says.
Although Walter had dabbled with photography in his teens, the bug struck in earnest when he moved to Hendersonville in 2005, after closing down the recording studio he’d set up and run in Florida. “One day I ditched my little digital point-and-shoot camera and picked up an entry level Nikon digital SLR,” Walter recalls. “That was the tipping point for me. After that I was tethered to my camera and have been ever since.” Further inspiration came from a friend and mentor, Jack Howard, who is a master of a technique he calls High Dynamic Range — essentially layering multiple shots of the same scene, each layer shot at varying exposures, producing a greater depth and range of lighting. But Walter considers himself an artist, not a technician. “I often receive the misdirected compliment ‘You must have a very nice camera.’ I understand the intent behind the compliment,” Walter says, “but that’s like telling a writer ‘What a wonderful book you’ve written, you must have an amazing typewriter.'” The camera is first and foremost Walter’s means of creative expression, which he also uses for his occasional commercial work shooting portraits and events when he’s not at his day job as a bank branch manager in Hendersonville.
Walter’s next adventure is a bit more personal, though, as he’s recently become engaged with a wedding planned for next fall. “We can’t wait!” Walter enthuses. “All I can say is whoever we settle on for a wedding photographer had better be up to the task of shooting another photographer’s wedding.”