Matthew Christopher puts America's abandoned buildings in sharp focus

'Abandoned America' documents factories, theaters, churches and prisons left to the elements and vandals

Ruin porn, decay tourism, urban exploration — they’re all buzz phrases describing abandonography, the photography of abandoned buildings. The economic crises that have left malls, offices and once-great landmarks neglected and forlorn may have fueled the popularity of the genre, but for photographer Matthew Christopher, it’s not just a passing fancy.

The Pennsylvania native began documenting abandoned structures 10 years ago while researching the decline of the 168-acre Byberry state psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia.

“It was a life-changing experience and spiraled into an obsession exploring any place I could find,” said Christopher, who went on to visit hundreds of abandoned sites across the county.

His new photo book, “Abandoned America: The Age of Consequence,” is a collection of images of forsaken factories, theaters, churches and prisons left to the elements and vandals. His evocative commentary provides in-depth context on the demise of places that once helped to define a community’s identity.

Many of the structures he photographed no longer exist, such as the gothic St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia and the hulking, 11-story Frank R. Phillips Power Station, which generated electricity for the Pittsburgh area until the 1990s.

Deserted properties such as the haunting, rusted-out Holmesburg Prison, built in 1896 and nicknamed “The Terrordome,” evoke a creepy, horror-movie vibe. Other sites held noted architecture, including Eero Saarinen’s modernist Bell Labs Holmdel Complex and Neo-Classicist John Haviland’s Old Essex county jail, both in New Jersey .

Preservationists have stepped in and salvaged several sites such as Philadelphia’s Lansdowne Theater, which made a cameo appearance in the film “Silver Linings Playbook,” and the Carrie blast furnaces, once part of the Homestead Steel Works complex built by Andrew Carnegie in 1884.

“We need places like the Carrie Furnaces,” Christopher said, “not just to remind us of who we were, but also who we are and could be.”

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