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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

PA Clothing Factory, June 2013


This was another one of Matthew Christopher’s completely legal tour/workshops, and the disorienting lack of skulduggery (meaning we rolled up at 10am, parked directly across from the building, and entered through the front door, talking loudly) led me to reflect upon the allure of UE, to wit: is it still enjoyable if there’s no possibility of receiving a cavity search from an overzealous rent-a-cop?

As a side note, skulduggery may not be the correct word, but it sounds right, and also it (probably) came from a Scottish word meaning fornication, which is another good reason to use it. Skulduggery.

People often ask me to explain the allure of UE, why I would spend my free time crawling around in unsafe structures filled with asbestos and (presumably) rabid, territorial raccoons. For me, it’s the convergence of myriad boyhood interests:

First off, getting to these locations often involves a hike through the woods, which takes me right back to all the weekends I spent exploring the forested areas in suburbs North of Seattle (Brier, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace). Those were the hours when I was free of parental supervision, free to run and climb and chase and hide and splash around in the shallow creeks and return home exhausted and filthy, knees and elbows a tapestry of scrapes and bruises.

Then there is the attraction of proprietary knowledge. I grew up in a church that told me we had The Truth, and it was a Truth unique to us, concealed from (most of) the rest of hellbound humanity. (I’m using “hellbound” metaphorically, since JW’s don’t actually believe in Hell, but I think you get my meaning.) That was a powerful feeling, and when it was gone I felt the loss. I suspect that’s part of the thrill associated with knowing how to get into Hospital 7 or School 2, special information shared by an elite group of like-minded folks, and concealed from the masses.

Thirty years in a rule-bound fundamentalist community also left me with a profound attraction to (and fear of) breaking the rules, of being somewhere I’m not supposed to be. Skulking around an abandoned hospital, peeking through keyholes for any sign of security patrols, I recognize the same sick dread/adrenaline rush that I had as a teenager, sneaking out of the house past curfew or kissing my best friend’s sister on the roller coaster at Enchanted Village. This is the component that’s missing on these legal explorations.

The pleasure that comes from creating an evocative photograph, and the joy of extrapolating a narrative from the things left behind (medical records, childrens’ clothing, mildewed copies of Jewish prayer books or the Victoria Principal issue of Playboy) – those came later.

I’m curious to hear from other UE folks – what is the attraction for you?

Oh, yeah – these are some pictures I took in an abandoned clothing factory in (name of city redacted), PA. Here’s the blurb from Matthew’s site, describing the location:

Originally built in 1910 as a silk mill, this mill employed 110 people by 1914. Of those, fourteen were boys and twenty eight were girls under the age of sixteen. When synthetic Rayon was introduced the decline for silk declined and the factory went out of business, laying off all of its mostly female workforce.

The mill sat vacant until it was purchased to consolidate three factories in the 1930s. It mainly produced girls’ and ladies’ dresses. One of the economic tentpoles of the region, this factory continued to operate with a clothing outlet on the bottom floor until the early 1990s, when cheaper garment manufacturing in the south drove it out of business.


P.S. If you would like to join one of Matthew’s future tours (and you really should because they’re great and also I get a small commission for each referral), check out his website for info and announcements.

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  1. I think these are my new favorites. I want a print of the pic with the dress form and the colorful thread behind it and the fan to the right.

    When you see the photos, there is no question for me why you would love the entire process. That I am freaked out by decay is on me. What I don’t understand is how you can resist not taking the furniture home…

  2. magnificent photos, which mean at least to me, how fungible our concept of beauty is, these photos capture this esoteric, evanescent beauty that only a few are privileged to intuit, strange, I watched a film yesterday about the last days of M.Antoinette and how she poured over her pattern books in the last days, almost as a correlation of what awaited her and the rest of the world, a new death but also a new world, we can never understand the ambiguity of our past….

    fabulous job, Jason!


  3. You nailed it, Matthew. My feelings are undoubtedly colored by the fact that I have never been in real trouble with the police etc. I’m sure once that happens, the forbidden fruit will taste a little less sweet. Don’t misunderstand me, though: All of the positive aspects of a legal explore which you mentioned are spot on. It’s been a pleasure to a) explore/photograph with freedom to talk out loud, etc. and b) meet the owners (or the owner’s brother) of the buildings. It’s just a different vibe, and that’s what I was hoping to describe. And if I haven’t been clear about it: I am super grateful for these opportunities you have secured! Great experiences, different from my usual explore spots, and yeah, I thought my photos turned out pretty well!
    One other aspect of UE that I failed to mention in the article above is the opportunity to meet people – people that I would never have met otherwise. When we moved to MA, I knew *nobody*. I reached out to Kate and Chris, both of whom welcomed me on their weekend trips, and through them I met Rob and Jim and Joe Mat and you… all of whom I now consider good friends. Smoking a cigar with Rob in the woods in the early morning fog, spending the night in an abandoned hotel with Kate and Gio and Jim, talking the politics of violence with Joe on the roof of 5 Beekman, evading venomous snakes and tenacious security guards with Chris and Mat – those are some of my happiest memories of the past few years.

  4. I can see where you’re coming from, and I’ve done plenty of both – exploring with and without permission. They both have pros and cons (hopefully there were some good aspects of not having to skulk for you also?). The rush you’re talking about with sneaking around is great and I think you articulated it well so I won’t focus as much on that… but the risk associated with being caught is very real and can be very severe. I know plenty of explorers that have had to pay thousands of dollars in fines, been hauled off to jail or had very unpleasant experiences with the law/security, and/or have been turned down for jobs because they have a criminal record due to the hobby. Until you’ve really been zinged by the law it is hard to appreciate how much of a dent this can put in your life. To me, one of the nice things about trips with permission are that you know you’re going to get what you came for. I have driven many, many miles and spent quite a bit on travel only to find places recently sealed or too well monitored due to other people causing trouble there to go in. If you had come all the way out for that clothing factory only to find that the wire over the window had been replaced and there was razor wire around where you were going to climb in (the way it is now) you would have been pretty bummed, and while you may have had backups planned, you didn’t have to worry about that because you could just walk right in.

    I also find that permission allows me to really pay attention to what I am doing. I am not constantly looking out the windows wondering if someone will see me through them, not talking to people or talking in hushed toned because noise carries, or having to hustle out of an area I just got settled in because I am running from the police. Also, there are places out there that you simply can’t access without the keys. Earlier this year I photographed an enormous factory complex that was very important to my own family history, and it was crawling with people demoing it while I was there. Getting in was not possible without the proper ID and escort. I don’t care how awesome of an explorer one thinks they are, it just would not have happened otherwise and that place would not have been photographed. End of story.

    I’m not saying this to be contrary or negate what you’re saying at all – I think you have excellent points and I do understand how the taboo element adds a lot. It’s kind of like drinking when you’re underage vs. as an adult (or smoking pot in Amsterdam). When you’re underage you feel a sense of superiority, like you’re elite. You outsmarted the man! Other kids your age can’t drink! You’re cooler than them!

    When you go into a bar that first time as an adult (after your 21st) there’s a sense of it being a letdown. Who cares? You can be in there and it’s no big deal.

    But when you are able to go into a bar whenever you want, not have to worry about The Man pulling you aside and hauling you off to jail or getting your fake ID denied, it may not be as epic but hey, I enjoy wine or a gin and tonic. I like being able to get them when I want and have them with friends and not have anybody in my business while I do it. If the thrill of evading the law is the only reason one explores, permission is not the route to go. But if seeing a cool place only a few people get to see filled with odd little puzzle pieces of the past and get some great photographs from it is also enjoyable, permission can be as good.

    Whatever the case may be, I enjoy getting to talk to you at the workshops and your photos came out great. I’ll see you at the Bethlehem Steel one on the 20th and thanks for recommending them to others, friend.


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