Dead malls: Finding beauty in decay

They are massive decaying wastelands -- flooded, rotting and covered in debris.

But they are also reminders of who we were, and many people find them hauntingly beautiful.

Photographing "dead" malls has become a viral phenomenon online.

These enormous palaces dedicated to shopping were once a thriving part of our economy. Now these "dead" malls have lost all of their major anchor stores or have completely shut down, giving them their morbid name.

Two local men have gained international attention for their photographs of two local malls that met the same fate.

"Years after the malls are torn down, I'll have all those pictures of them," Northeast Ohio-based photographer Johhny Joo smiles. "All those people will be in their 80s or 90s and they'll be like, 'Those pictures are so old. That's all that's left of it.' "

Joo has spent years photographing abandoned structures, capturing these quiet, surreal spaces.

"It has a lot of history to it. You can go into an abandoned house and find people's whole lives. Sometimes it's like they got up and just left," Joo explains. "It's just incredible how it's just been locked up there like a time capsule."

For Joo it's historic preservation through the lens of a camera.

PHOTOS | Inside 2 local abandoned malls

"You capture it as well as you can to share it with everyone years from now," Joo explains. "With some of these buildings, no one's ever going to be able to take pictures of them again. I'm the only one who has that, and I'm the only one who's ever going to have that."

Cleveland-based artist Seph Lawless has also been photographing crumbling structures for years, but for Lawless, it's more about promoting dialogue and social activism.

"The goal from the very beginning was to create awareness," Lawless says. "Mainly to show Americans a side of the country that they didn't know existed. I really wanted to show Americans what was happening to their country."

Lawless sees Northeast Ohio as a particularly rich area for this kind of photography, both in terms of finding empty structures and in the need to educate the community.

"There is an economic downshift, especially here in Cleveland," Lawless explains. "So, we have gone through significant changes during the span of that time, resulting in massive population loss, resulting in places like this, where neighborhoods are destroyed."

Lawless continues, "The more we neglect it, the more the problem persists. And I thought these (photos) could help change that ... hopefully."

Up until now, both Lawless and Joo have used social media and their respective websites almost exclusively to find an audience.

In the last two months both men have each released their own photography books on the subject.

Joo's book "Empty Spaces: Photojournalism Through The Rust Belt" covers all kinds of abandoned structures throughout the region, while Lawless' book "Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall" specifically focuses on the shuttered local malls Rolling Acres and Randall Park.

While the artists are clear about their own missions, the reasons the photos have captured the public's attention are harder to pin down.

"The images are impacting people on several different levels. It seems to be a multitude of reasons why people are attracted to abandoned photography, but it's definitely something that has exploded in the last couple of years," Lawless says.

Certainly, some of it is nostalgia.

"I've had so many people comment on Rolling Acres or Randall Park and say 'Oh I used to work there. I used to shop there. I grew up there as a kid,' " Joo says.

"Especially with malls, you used to walk in those malls," Lawless says. "A lot of people are writing me saying 'I remember going up those escalators.' "

Even the people who shoot these retail relics aren't immune to the sentimental feelings.

"I remember being a kid, jumping along the fountains and balancing myself. And I found myself doing that again," Lawless laughs, remembering the last day he was inside the abandoned Randall Park Mall. "Being in that mall by myself on April 3, getting one of the last images taken of that mall, a thunderstorm. I was in there for maybe about eight hours. I just didn't want to leave. I wasn't ready to say goodbye. It was emotional and a very beautiful experience for me personally."

Aside from the warm memories, there is an eerie stillness to seeing these structures in their current states, making everyday environments seem alien, even creepy.

"I'm so used to seeing it lively and full of people. And now it's just empty, and everything's broken," Joo says. "People are really interested in seeing that now."

Lawless points to recent pop culture as another contributor to the fascination: "A lot of people are zombie obsessed in this day and age. So the creepy apocalyptic factor ... you can get a lot of young people into it because of that."

For aspiring photographers out there, both men have advice for this particular brand of art. Be careful.

"A lot of these young kids are just going in, 'Ah man, it looks cool. It looks like a movie set.' And it does, but don't get wrapped up in that beauty," Lawless warns. "There's a lot of risk. There's important risk assessment to do. This is your life."

Or as Joo puts it: "A lot of people go into these places thinking it's cool. I'm brave. I'm strong. I'm not scared of anything. ... Just because you have a good attitude doesn't mean the floor's going to care."

The interest in documenting urban decay continues to grow, but Lawless hopes that by capturing the collapsing present, the future will have fewer and fewer of these commercial tombs.

"I really felt like the problems we face as a country won't change until we face these problems," Lawless asserts. "And I thought we could start by just simply looking at them."

Click through our gallery of abandoned mall photography, all courtesy of Johnny Joo and Seph Lawless.


For more information on their books or to see more of their incredible work, click the links below.

Johnny Joo:

Seph Lawless:


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