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The Nocturnal Photography of Noel Kerns

Article and photos by Noel Kerns
Ghost Town Eliasville TX at night
The lone building that still stands at the main intersection in the abandoned town of Eliasville.
As you look at these pictures, the question you’re probably asking is... why?

Why would someone want to drive hundreds of miles across the state of Texas to an old, abandoned ghost town, risking encounters with rattlesnakes, scorpions, hostile locals, and buildings that might collapse at the drop of a hat, all just to take photographs of these forgotten places? And on top of that, why on earth would you want to do it all at night?

Most folks don’t understand the appeal, but for me, there’s a special beauty and mystery to these places that just can’t be captured at any other time of day. The long exposure times required to let the moonlight take the picture brings out a whole new range of colors and textures you just don’t see during daylight hours. An old jailhouse by day becomes a surreal icon on the open plains after dark; a river flowing by an abandoned mill becomes a smooth ribbon of velvet winding through the Texas night.
Eliasville TX Donnell Mill and Brazos River
Donnell Mill
The clear fork of the Brazos River flows gently by the remains of the old Donnell Mill, built in 1895 in Eliasville.
Then there’s the solitude…standing in the middle of a virtually empty field of cactus, scrub trees, and sagebrush and knowing that, a hundred years ago, you would have been standing in downtown Belle Plain, Texas. Literally no lights to be seen in any direction… only the full moon above, so bright you could read a newspaper by it. You start to wonder what life must have been like for these people, who lived out in the middle of nowhere… back when “nowhere” was the middle of town.
School’s Out
The deteriorating home of the dean of Belle Plain college, the ruins of which still stand some 200 yards behind this structure…a distance I was not willing to venture without snake boots.
People often ask if it’s “spooky,” poking around in ghost towns in the middle of the night. It can be, for sure. Standing in front of an abandoned old house in a remote Texas ghost town, all alone… or at least you think you are…

Then you hear a noise, and you wonder, “Was that the wind, or perhaps an animal…maybe just the creaking of one of these old buildings… surely that’s all it was…” Your mind, as they say, can start to play tricks on you.

Irrational fears notwithstanding, there is plenty to be wary of when exploring these places. As I mentioned before, all manner of wild animals can be found in out-of-the-way spots like these, including mountain lions and even bears in some parts of the state; it truly can be a jungle out there!
Clairemont Texas Kent County Jail
Kent County Jail
Located in Clairemont, this building is still almost completely intact, 112 years after it was built. For this photo, the inside of the jail was lit with red-gelled strobe flashes for artistic effect.
Likewise, the buildings themselves are usually in some advanced state of disrepair, just waiting for the unwary adventurer to step on a decaying floorboard and fall through. It’s often difficult to see all the potential traps into which you might step when exploring a ghost town at night.

But staying alert is not as hard as you might imagine; in fact, I find that all the senses become heightened when exploring these places. Your hearing, your sight (once it adjusts to the dark), even your smell is more acute than in daylight.
Clairemont Texas Kent County Jail old strap-iron cellblock
Inside the old strap-iron cellblock of the Kent County Jail in Clairemont. The jail was pitch black; photo was lit with multiple green-gelled strobe flashes during the time exposure.
Climax Texas barn at night
Barn, CR-464
Near Climax, Texas
I’ve outlined some of what appeals to me about ghost towns at night, but any explanation would be incomplete without mentioning the intangible elements: those elusive, often indescribable details that irreversibly brand the experience into your memory. I come from a quiet little community in the northeast part of the state called Dallas, so for me, the sense of isolation in these forgotten places is rare and refreshing. Standing alone in total darkness and total silence, only to suddenly realize that the “silence” is in fact a near-deafening chorus of crickets. Hearing a lonesome pack of coyotes howling in the distance. Seeing a thin layer of wispy clouds blaze bright as they glide past the moon. All of this contributes to a remarkable sense of place, a vivid awareness, an awakening to the beauty and tranquility of a Texas country night.

You need a place to think? Get in your car and drive to Eskota, Texas, pull off the road, get out, and lie down on the hood of your car. Look up at the moon and stars. Whatever’s on your mind will find perspective pretty quickly.
South Bend Texas ghost town motel  at night
Motel, South Bend
This old motel court sits just west of the intersection of SR-67 and FM-701 in Young County.
So ultimately, I suppose I enjoy taking these photographs for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, I immensely enjoy the creative process associated with night photography, as well as the experience of simply being in these remote, deserted places. And while the experience is for me a solitary one, I do want to share it with others, so these pictures also represent my attempt at conveying the incredible sense of history, beauty, imagination, and mystery that these ghost towns conjure up for me. I hope you find these places as interesting as I do, and that you enjoy my pictures of them.

Copyright Noel Kerns. October 2007

A note on technique…

Ghost Town Eliasville TX house for sale
For Sale
“2 bedroom, 1 bath with kitchen, quiet neighborhood, Eliasville, Texas.”
The photographs in this essay were shot at night and in total darkness aside from moonlight and, in some cases, artistic effect lighting. The only exceptions to this are “Eliasville” and “For Sale,” which were partially illuminated by sodium vapor lamps on nearby private property.

The luminescence and color saturation in these images are a result of the lengthy exposure times, ranging from one to ten minutes, and belie how dark the scenes really were.

For the effect lighting in several pictures, I used hand-held strobes with colored gel filters, and an arsenal of flashlights varying in intensity from a Mini-Maglite up to a 2,000,000 candlepower spotlight. All pictures were taken with a Nikon D80 digital SLR camera.

More Photos by Noel Kerns
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