This month’s edition of the In Studio series is a bit of a misnomer, since Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp do most of their work in the field, taking hauntingly beautiful photographs of North Dakota ghosts towns before they disappear forever.
I’ve known these two since we all worked in radio together and it’s been fascinating to watch them develop their website, www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com, and expand into Ghosts of North Dakota: The Book, which is available for Kindle and iPad and at locations across North Dakota — just click the link for details.
Here’s a little more info on what makes Ghosts of North Dakota tick, in the words of Troy Larson. All photos in this post are provided by Ghosts of North Dakota.
How did the Ghosts of North Dakota project come about?
Terry and I worked together at a radio station some years ago and we had the idea to find an abandoned place that we could spend the night in, and then record our experiences for a Halloween radio program.
We got as far as researching some potential locations before we decided to go in another direction for our Halloween program, but in the process of seeking out abandoned places, we discovered we had a shared appreciation for ghost towns, history, and abandoned structures.
Shortly thereafter, we visited three towns in Steele County, and we were off and running. We started a website and the feedback we received was so positive, we decided to continue under the premise that many of these places would be gone someday and someone needs to photograph them.
Ten years later, here we are.
How do you decide where to go?
There are a lot of factors. We started out using old railroad maps. Those maps showed us a pocket in the central portion of the state with a lot of dwindling towns, so we’ve been to quite a few places there.
South of Interstate 94 is also sparsely populated statewide, so we always have our eyes open for locations there. Sometimes we find references to places when we’re online… in other blogs or on Google Earth, for instance.
But most commonly, visitors to our website and Facebook page will make a suggestion that leads us in the right direction.
How many shoots do you typically do in a year?
We’ll typically take four or five expeditions each summer, with five to six shoots on each trip, and then we sprinkle in two or three short little day trips to shoot, too.
How do you set up a shoot?
With very few exceptions, our research is all done in advance. I do the research — frequently based on a suggestion — and then attempt to combine five or six locations into a driveable round trip. Once the shoot is set, we spend a lot of time doing final research and charging batteries.
On the day of the trip, we’ll load my hybrid (for better fuel efficiency) with camera gear, coolers, and maps, plus some books and postcards in case we need to make friends with any property owners. Then we’re off-and-running, usually down a lightly traveled rural highway.
When we arrive, Terry starts shooting right away. I usually take a photo on my phone and upload it to our Facebook page because the fans like to follow along while we’re out in the field. Then I’ll start shooting as well.
We usually split up, and Terry always takes about 25% more photos than I do. He’s persistent like that, and I’m easily distracted. When it’s time to leave, I frequently do another social media update and tease our next location.
What are your favorite sites and why?
I’m a big fan of Lincoln Valley. When we first visited Lincoln Valley, I was struck by the remote location and the solitude. Lincoln Valley had been empty since Joe Leintz left in the seventies, so by the time we visited, it had been abandoned for decades. It was a place lost in time.
What’s your favorite part of working on this project?
Having an excuse to get out of town and travel the back roads.
Why is photographing ghost towns important?
Ghost towns and near-ghost towns are frequently home to numerous abandoned structures, sometimes culturally or architecturally significant. But when the population dwindles, the resources to save these places disappear. So we think it’s important, at the very least, to engage in a little “virtual” preservation.
If you could tell people something about this project that they don’t already know, what would it be?
This project is about a lot more than photos of abandoned places. One look at the comments section of our website will show that.
People who have a connection to the places we photograph share their thoughts and memories and have turned the website into a kind of living history. The website has become a destination for people researching family history as well. People will plunk the name of their ancestors’ birthplace into Google, and it frequently leads them to our website. It makes for some fascinating reading in the comments section.
What’s the most challenging part of working on this project?
It’s unfortunate, but we sometimes catch backlash from people who think we’ve portrayed their favorite town as a ghost town. There’s sometimes an attitude of “How dare they talk about my town,” or “This isn’t a ghost town — people live here!” So, it’s sometimes challenging to make people understand what we do and why we’re doing it.
Why did you decide to create a book?
Our primary goal in this project has been to “document” North Dakota’s ghost towns and abandoned places, and leave a photographic record.
So it’s important to get these photos off the servers and into a physical medium — into the hands of the people who remember and cherish these places.
How was working in book form different than working in website form?
It was harder, in my opinion. To design the book, I had to learn a whole new suite of software in a limited amount of time.
Plus, many of our early photos were low-resolution shots from low-quality cameras. They look OK on a monitor, but don’t translate well to high-res printing. So it was a challenge to find ways to incorporate our early material in a visually pleasing way.
Standing Rock Tree
Photo courtesy of Ghosts of North Dakota
What future projects do you have planned?
We’re doing at least one more book this year — hopefully in time for Christmas — and possibly two.
We’re considering the possibility of a postcards book, a Minnesota book, and a book about some spots in the desert southwest too.
Plus, we have a supersecret project that we’ve always wanted to do, so we’ll be busy for the next couple of years.
Where is Ghosts of North Dakota headed next?
We can’t say. If we tell people where we want to go beforehand, they’ll either meet us there — which slows us down because, as much as we like to chat, we just don’t have the time most of the time — or they’ll go photograph the place before we get there.
You’ll just have to wait and see!
What about you?
What do you like about exploring sparsely populated or abandoned places?
Do you have a favorite ghost town?
Which ghost towns do you want to explore?
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