Shooting the spooky Southwest backroads

“As a kid, I liked sneaking into abandoned places and haunted houses,” says photographer Troy Paiva, known on Flickr as Lost America. ”It’s that spooky factor.”

“I guess I just never grew out of that,” he tells The Weekly Flickr in the accompanying video. “Everyday, there’s a never-ending list of unique, strange… or access-sensitive locations for me to shoot… and I love that!”

Wandering the deserted backroads of the American Southwest, Troy has explored the abandoned underbelly of America since the 1970s.

“When I was a kid, my family made road trips all over the West,” Troy says. ”I witnessed firsthand the demise of all these little roadside towns. I was only 12 years old, but was amazed people would just walk away from a whole city like that. Once I began driving myself, I began to explore these sites on my own in a much deeper way.”

Flooded Trailer

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Troy started taking pictures of these abandoned towns at night in 1989. He calls his method ‘night photography’ — timed exposures out in the desert, under a full moon.

“There’s only 12 full-moon weekends a year, so there’s a very limited number of days that you can actually do this kind of photography,” Troy says. “I think that’s part of the attraction for me; the rarity of it.”

His technique is very simple. Troy uses a DSLR on a tripod and locks the lens open for two to eight minutes. Many of the subjects he shoots are already gone: bulldozed, burned down, melted for scrap or simply vanishing beneath the shifting desert sand. Mobility is important, because most of the time, he’s sneaking in and out of these locations.

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“I have to work fast and light,” Troy explains. “I’ve come close to being arrested dozens of times. I’ve been rousted by every kind of security, from minimum-wage guards to border patrol to even federal agents, but I’ve always been able to talk my way out of it. Once they see what I’m doing, and that I’m just a harmless weirdo taking pictures, usually they’ll say, ‘Alright, have fun. Weirdo.’”

Troy’s colored lighting is done with either flashlights or strobe flashes masked with theatrical lighting gels. While he does minor digital adjustments to some of the photographs, most of the lighting effects are all done on site during the exposure. These images are not Photoshop creations.


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“With my lighting, I’m trying to create something that really isn’t there,” Troy explains. “I’m always trying to tell a story, create a mood, and I’m trying to just make people go, ‘Wow’.”

One of Troy’s favorite images is called Mrs. B’s Dirty Washcloth. It’s of a Cadillac interior in a junkyard.

“The thing that caught my eye here is obviously the dirty washcloth,” Troy explains. “I love the mystery and the incongruity of it. Why is the washcloth on the steering wheel in the first place? I’m just fascinated by these weird kind of mysteries and things that you find in abandoned places and junkyards.”

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Troy isn’t the only one who has this fascination. His work and style has gained worldwide attention, appearing in major publications and in several foreign museums/galleries. The attraction and interest to his “Lost in America” series has captivated many; a reason, he says, is innately human.

“I think it’s a normal feeling for humans to be mystified and curious in abandoned places,” Troy explains. “You look at the history of humanity and our attraction to places like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, the Greek, Roman and Egyptian ruins. They’re all pointing to the fact that we’re obsessed with ruins as a species.”

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More than anything, Troy loves the serenity he feels in these places. He explains, “I love that feeling of being alone in a place that was crawling with people but is now empty and filled with their ghosts. And the ghosts of a culture.”

When asked how much longer he’ll continue night photography, his answer is quite simple.

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“I’ve been doing this for 24 years now, and I still have the approach of an amateur. I don’t do this to please anyone. I do it because I’m passionate about it, and this is what I love to do.”

Follow Troy’s photostream to see more of his photography.

Watch a previous episode, featuring a risk-taking photographer shooting urban decay.

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