(CNN) — John Mulhouse has two passions: wetland biology and photography of abandoned places.
The first gave him the opportunity to live and work anywhere in the United States – as well as the means to continue working on the second.
But while some people might see these two interests as divergent, Mulhouse believes they are linked.
“As a biologist who studies the natural world, there’s the fact that people have to live in different ways, and sometimes they have to do it very quickly,” he says. “The way we live now is not the way we will live tomorrow.”
Mulhouse began his photography project in the mid-2000s while in Georgia for graduate school.
Eventually, as online media consumption habits changed, he migrated much of his work to a Facebook page. Fans and history buffs followed. In the comment sections, Mulhouse says, people shared memories of growing up in different cities, then tagged friends and relatives to provide more details.
“People love houses, and they love churches and buildings that have some kind of character,” Mulhouse says.
As he moved around the United States, City of Dust accompanied him. Although he no longer lives in New Mexico, Mulhouse still considers the Land of Enchantment his favorite state, citing its Native American and Spanish history.
“It’s the least like the United States, I think, of almost any state in the country,” he says by way of explanation.
He cites Chaco Canyon and Pecos Pueblo as two of his favorite places to visit and photograph in New Mexico.
And while Route 66 attracts visitors from all over the world, Mulhouse prefers to take Highway 60 – which runs through central New Mexico and ends in western Arizona – where you can “go back in time”.
How to define “abandoned”
While the concept of “ruin porn” has grown in the age of social media, Mulhouse doesn’t consider the places he photographs to be scary. Instead, it tries to learn as much as possible about what these places were in their heyday, who lived there, and why they were abandoned.
First of all, what qualifies a place as abandoned to begin with?
“Most ‘ghost towns’ still have people living there. If someone approaches you, you should say a few words to them. It helps to know your story before you leave so that when this happens , you can say, ‘I photograph this store, I photograph this old church. It will start a conversation and you will often learn a lot from it.’
Buildings are abandoned for many reasons and Mulhouse is still trying to find out why.
And it’s important to ask how a place got abandoned in the first place.
In the town of Springer is one of his most commented photos: the Mills Mansion.
It was built by famed Santa Fe Ring member Melvin Mills in the 1870s. Mills won, then lost, his fortune, then his home. Today, he has a few descendants who want to redevelop the house and turn it into a tourist attraction, but lack the funds to do so.
Another much-loved building, a former general store from the 1920s, was bought by a young couple who hoped to clean it up and convert it into an Airbnb, but ultimately abandoned the project.
Growing urbanization plays a major role. This can cause a chicken and egg situation: tourists would come and spend money if there was something to visit, but small businesses need money before they can open up to tourists in the first place. .
Mulhouse is not interested in blaming people for moving away from small towns.
After all, he’s still a biologist, and he knows that climate change affects where and how people live.
Some places are abandoned when a factory closes and people follow the work elsewhere. Sometimes the destruction caused by a hurricane or an earthquake makes a place unsafe to live.
“Ghost towns, I think, say a lot about the past. But the more I think about them, they also say something about the present and maybe even the future. There’s a lot to think about in terms of change and vulnerability of humans.
Rediscover the past
Ultimately, says Mulhouse, the internet is a place where people with uncommon interests can find each other and create a small community. City of Dust became his home as much as any house or apartment he lived in.
Niche Facebook groups are rebuilding small towns even as the buildings that made them up have disappeared.
“I try to be the person who gets excited when five people are interested,” he says.
“There’s really something about loneliness and a bit of melancholy and thinking about what people’s lives have been like and they’ve come and gone, and these are places that people used to love and now they don’t. are no longer there.”
But, thanks to Mulhouse, they are.