Want to see real haunted houses, abandoned churches and crumbling insane asylums for Halloween? Richmond photographer John Plashal has just published a book full of them—and they’re all right here in Virginia.
I met John, who grew up in Great Falls, at the regular Salon Arlington gathering this summer, and was entranced with his photography of ruin. He was showing photographs from this then-forthcoming book, which is now available. We agreed to meet after the salon to talk about his pastime.
It all started when he spotted an abandoned school in central Virginia a few years ago while he was driving down a back road. “I was looking for cool things to shoot,” says John, who by day makes a living selling medical equipment. “I was new to photography and wanted a hobby to take up—seeing these ruinous places, to me, offered unique subject matter.”
“It’s an old state, and there’s a lot of old, historic places,” John says. “This book is two things: A commemoration to all these places that are rich in Virginia history, and to share a positive message about my experience with Virginians.”
Shooting these types of pictures means, in almost every case, trespassing onto private property. But John has become adept at getting to know people in all the little towns where these structures tend to hide. He calls it “delicate interrogation,” which could mean sidling up to someone at a lunch counter or gas station, asking them about the area and its history.
“When you say, ‘Can you tell me about this town?’ You’re in for a 45-minute earful,” he says. “It’s my own little history lesson.” It’s also how he gets the goods:
The diner above has remained untouched for decades. Can’t you just see the ghosts of people sitting there, eating burgers and sipping on milkshakes?
When John was giving his presentation at the Salon, his eyes welled up as he described his interactions with Virginians who invited them into their homes, and told them their stories about long-abandoned homes and public buildings. “I can’t tell you how many living rooms I’ve ended up in, sipping tea and eating crumpets with strangers who are educating me,” he says. “You get personal tours—people are delightful.”
A long-abandoned living room—strangely beautiful.
In addition to his book, John has been traveling the state on a speaking tour sponsored by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, talking about bygone eras that are literally crumbling before our eyes. “The speaking engagements, to me, are much larger than any book sales. It’s a visual presentation of the journey of creating this book,” he says.
Not every history lesson is positive. The book contains an image of a school that a town closed and abandoned rather than comply with the integration mandates that followed Brown vs. Board of Education. And this asylum here—though the architecture is beautiful, you can’t get away from the fact that it was a warehouse for people:
John won’t reveal where any of these structures are located, because he wants them to remain frozen in time, unscathed by would-be looters and looky-loos. The homes he’s photographed, for instance, would be a jackpot for antiques and second-hand dealers looking to score:
What I wouldn’t give for that old-time radio, above, or this chair below! I’m sure book dealers would go nuts over the library, too.
One of my favorite stories that I’ve covered was about builder Tom Glass, whose DC firm specializes in historic restoration and renovation. He found an abandoned 18th-century home near Appomattox—close to where Robert E. Lee surrendered his army, effectively ending the Civil War. Tom catalogued every board and beam, moved it all, and rebuilt to livable standards it on his weekend property in Flint Hill.
There’s a community of people like John and Tom who appreciate old structures. Google “rurex” for rural exploration, or its city counterpart, “urbex,” to see examples.
Here’s some more glorious ruin from John’s book:
I’m always tempted to conjure people sitting on these porches, knocking on the doors, or making dinner inside. Who where they? What were they like? John has heard those stories from their old neighbors and descendants across the state. But for those of us who read the book, the mystery remains. He describes it as 98 percent pictures and 2 percent text, which is itself poetic and mysterious—utterly non-revealing.
It’s the perfect time of year to get a copy. They are currently on sale locally at the Village Sweet bakery (where Salon Arlington is held), or you can contact John to purchase a copy. They cost $39.95.