Nyla James finds beauty in abandoned places. Camera in hand, she seeks out forgotten farmhouses, deserted churches and vacant motels, peering past broken windows, slipping through dim doorways and padding up crumbling staircases draped with ragged wallpaper and dusted with dry leaves.
The Arroyo Grande photographer likes to imagine what life was once like in those now-forlorn spots. “Can you imagine Mom calling the kids in to sit around the table?” she asked. “This was someone's home. …It had a lot of love in it at one time.”
James shares some of her discoveries in her exhibition “Abandoned in America,” April 1 through May 1 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. It's one of two shows being presented this spring in conjunction with the Central Coast Photographic Society; the juried group show “Up Close & Personal,” which features macro photography, runs May 6 through 29.
Board member BeJae Blake said the Central Coast Photographic Society selected James after seeing her “Abandoned in America” photos on display at the Santa Maria Public Library in May 2015.
She's an outstanding photographer,” Blake said, praising James's carefully composed shots and her unusual subject matter. “She's also showing things that we haven't seen [before].”
James has been exploring the world through her lens since age 16, when her mother bought her a Kodak Instamatic 124 camera. The Morro Bay High School graduate has honed her craft at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo and Brooks Institute in Ventura.
I've always loved photography,” said James, who is the president of the San Luis Obispo Camera Club and recently finished her fourth term as president of the Santa Maria Camera Club. “I eat, think, breathe it. …Everywhere I go I see pictures in my head.”
Her fascination with photography coincides with an interest in architecture.
James spent much of her childhood in the coastal community of Los Osos exploring construction sites in the company of her father, a builder and general contractor. “He was building houses down the road from my school,” she recalled. “I’d stop on my way home from school and hang out with him until it was time for him to get off of work.”
When she wasn't climbing the rafters of a half-finished home, James would sneak into abandoned buildings with her younger brother and sister and build forts.
The photographer experiences a similar thrill of discovery whenever she stumbles upon a shambling shack or desolate schoolhouse. “I got back to being a little kid” searching for secret hiding places, she said. “It's the excitement. It's a little bit of a risk. …It's really fun.”
Over the past five or six years, James has dedicated herself to documenting the dilapidated places she encounters on road trips around the country. Her quest has taken her to such out-of-the-way spots as Yeso, N.M., a former trading post turned ghost town, and the pastoral Palouse region encompassing parts of southeastern Washington and north central Idaho.
James is most attracted to abandoned houses, in part because they represent the human urge for comfort, safety and love. “There's no place like home, right?” she asked with a wry smile.
"She has this love affair with going on a road she's never been on before and has absolutely no idea what she's going to find,” said Ruta Saliklis, exhibition and development director at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. “She gets out [there] and finds these beautiful compositions.”
"I never take these trips to find this stuff but it’s always in the back of my mind. I can’t help it. We drive down the road and I go, 'Oh, you’ve got to stop. There’s something awesome,'” said James, whose boyfriend, photographer Bob Ginn, serves as her chauffeur and navigator. “Bob is awesome. He’ll just turn around and go back.”
Ginn is more reluctant to step inside those sites, however, while James insists on exploring every corner. Hers, she acknowledged, can be a dangerous pursuit.
She could cut her skin on a shard of broken glass, bang her head on a low-hanging doorway, tread on a rusty nail. One false step, and a seemingly stable floor could buckle beneath her feet.
"I've actually walked up stairs on the outside [edge] thinking, 'Well, it's probably safer to walk on the edge than in the center,'” the photographer said with a laugh. “I don't know if it works or not. But mentally it makes me feel better.” (So far, she added, she's yet to fall through any floors.)
But the risks are worth it for James. And the results speak for themselves.
Once, she and Ginn chanced on an abandoned church in a tiny settlement just as they ran out of gasoline. Unable to find a gas station and running on fumes, they tracked down a friendly U.S. Forest Service ranger who gave them five gallons from his own pump.
But before they left town, they returned to the church so James could snap some photos in the glow of the setting sun. Those black-and-white images reveal an empty sanctuary awaiting a phantom congregation: clapboard walls covered with peeling paint, pointed arched windows open to the elements and a peaked, shingled roof topped with a bell-less steeple.
The pair found Yeso by accident as well. “We were driving on the road and I said, 'What was that? It looked like a pile of rocks,'” James recalled.
When they stopped, they discovered an entire settlement of ruined stone structures. “That was a lot of work for people who put their whole lives and their hearts and all their dreams into building those homes. And then they couldn't make it and they had to leave,” she said. “I just feel for them.”
Standing amid the buildings, “It was almost an eerie feeling -- like there's nobody here but I expect somebody [to be here],” she said.
Sometimes, James said, it seems as if the buildings' former occupants have just stepped out of the room. She's seen canning jars packed with aging preserves standing in an otherwise empty kitchen cabinet, an upholstered chair perched expectantly on a front porch, a magazine with its cover pulled back as if waiting for its reader to return. “It's like somebody was reading the magazine and they just walked off and left it,” she said.
"I don't take anything,” the photographer emphasized. “I leave [the site] the way I found it so when someone else comes along… they can have the same experience.”
Preservation is part of James' mission. When she captures a decrepit Santa Barbara County strip mall on camera, she's metaphorically suspending the scene in amber for the sake of future generations.
"I've driven by barns thinking, 'Oh, I’ve got to take pictures of that barn. That barn is about to fall down.' The next time I drive by, it’s flat on the ground. It’s kindling,” she said. “If you don’t take pictures of it, if you don’t save that [image], it’s going to be gone and nobody will remember what it looked like.”
"I just want to show what has been,” she continued.
It's an instinct that has stuck with her since childhood, when she'd bring her mother handfuls of wilted flowers and shiny pebbles as presents. “With my camera, I can bring home anything I want to, especially the stuff that won't fit in my pocket,” she said with a chuckle.
Top image: Arroyo Grande photographer Nyla James found this flag mural on the side of a decrepit Santa Barbara County strip mall. The image is one of many featured in her solo exhibition at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, "Abandoned in America."