A new photography movement: Abandoned, but not forgotten

By Colleen Callahan, AloNovus Corp

Abandoned, decaying and crumpled, they seemingly hide behind thick, gnarled vines and broken barns. Colorless washboard exteriors blend with all seasons as wind, rain and snow relentlessly whip through shattered windows, doors hanging by the grace of one rusted hinge.

These are the homes of a bygone era. Though antiquated, they provide clues to a lifestyle that is romanticized by those who arm themselves with a camera and an archeologist’s curiosity.

This is a movement. Across the country specialized photographers are documenting a lifestyle, décor and historical context through the overgrowth and decay of what some explorers call Abandoned America.

Some experience heavy emotions when approaching these forgotten homesteads, feelings of injustice and tragedy combined with a post-apocalyptic vision of what the future might look like if all we knew ended with this century. Others focus on the simplicity and beauty of a special time in history that we will never experience again.

Photographer Cynthia Vaughn was raised in a mid-1800s farmhouse. As far back as she can remember, she had a fascination with local, abandoned homes.

Curious by nature, she recalls navigating her way through a dilapidated farmhouse in the dark of night with a flashlight in hand. “I’ve always had a soft spot for these homes,” she said. “I find myself asking, ‘Why are you by yourself, and why is it that nobody cares for you anymore?’”

Vaughn had a deep desire to change the way people viewed these homes. Five years ago, with just a cellphone camera and her mother Judy as her co-pilot, she traveled Ohio’s back roads with a mission to breathe life back into the abandoned sites of Holmes and Wayne county.

“I want other people to care,” she said. “Somebody at one time walked out of that house and never returned. Some of these homes are extraordinary … homes of great wealth with ornate craftsmanship. It’s as if somebody’s hopes and dreams were left behind when they walked out, and yet the house still stands with a story to tell.”

Vaughn has since upgraded her camera and expanded her territory. She has found a niche of combining her photographs with graceful verse and creative editing.

With her mother still by her side, they use modern technology and their combined love of history to locate Ohio’s abandoned homes.

“There are many social media sites that use the hashtag ‘ForgottenOhio,’” Vaughn said. “Through Instagram, Facebook and various websites I’ve been able to connect with other explorers who post tips on locations. From there I use Google Earth Street View to further locate and define a valid location.”

One of her first discoveries was a late-1800s federal-style farm home on the outskirts of Millersburg. Vaughn is very protective and respectful of the locations and posted privacy signs. She does not publish street addresses with her photographs, nor does she enter a property if there are visible trespassing warnings.

“I really care about these homes. I care about their stories and the people who once lived there,” she said. “The house in Millersburg is one of my favorites. It is reminiscent of the early farm house I was raised in. Though this home is in pretty rough shape, there are still connections of love, comfort and family.”

Not all of the abandoned homes Vaughn photographs are as endearing as the Millersburg home. The Italianate-style Nova House in Ashland County has been vilified by previous photographers who pair stories of murder, suicide and hauntings with their photographs of this historic home. The early-1800s Nova House certainly looked like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie set.

Photographer Seph Lawless included a photo and folklore of the Nova House in his recently published coffee table book titled “13: An American Horror Story.” Lawless wrote that a murder had taken place in 1958 where a father had accidently shot his son and then he killed his wife and himself.

Vaughn had seen the photographs and read the accompanying story. She set out to discover the Nova House for herself. “When I pulled up to the home … My heart stopped,” she said. It was enormous with doors wide open. There were no privacy signs posted, so I went in.”

According to Vaughn, the home had signs of extravagant workmanship including medallions on the soaring ceilings, ornate woodwork and shards of stained glass scattered about the hardwood floors.

“This house was once someone’s pride and joy and was sitting there, just rotting away,” she said. “It was dark as doors had been ripped from hinges and used to cover windows. It had been vandalized, and parts of the roof were missing. When the roof falls in, that’s the kiss of death for these historic homes.”

She photographed the house and researched the validity of the murder/suicide story. Vaughn found no evidence to substantiate the story of what has unfortunately become its legacy.

The Nova House was the victim of arson in December 2015. It was completely destroyed; unfortunately the folklore was not.

Through sharing her photographs and stories on social media, Vaughn found the “Wayne County, Ohio … Remembered” Facebook page run by Wooster resident Michael L. Franks. She started contributing her photographs and entered the fall 2015 photo contest, where she placed first, second and third.

Franks said, “We have four photo contests per year. It’s typical to have between 200 and 300 photos submitted for each. At the end of each contest all of the photos are put into one Facebook album that is posted on the group. The one with the most ‘Likes’ wins.”

According to Franks, he also has included a series on his Facebook page called “Picturesque Wayne Survivors.” He searches for homes that appeared in an 1899 publication titled “Picturesque Wayne,” then photographs them as they stand today and places the images side by side on his Facebook page.

“This page is a place for people to get together and share stories, photos and historical facts on the content posted,” he said. “We have close to 6,000 members who have a common interest in preserving history, sharing and exploring. Photographers like Cynthia Vaughn provide a valuable service to our community.”

Vaughn and her mother continue their adventures and documentation of Ohio’s abandoned homesteads. Her photographs can be viewed on her Instagram account, CYNVAUGHN, and her Facebook page, c vaughn photography.

“These homes always leave me with a feeling of loss and sadness,” she said. “I believe I’m bringing some life back into them by sharing their images. Families may have moved on and forgotten about them, but I have not.”