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Nighthawks Behind the Lens: Interview with Troy Paiva

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I frequently indulge my passions for urban exploration and photography here on the blog (here are a few examples), but the hardest thing about photographing abandoned sites is doing justice to the sense of enormous, quiet desolation you feel while you're there. (My pictures frequently elicit responses like "Gross! I hope you didn't touch anything," which is fun but misses the point.)

Photographer Troy Paiva has been and abandoned-stuff junkie a lot longer than I have, and since 1989 he's been perfecting the best method I've seen yet for photographing such places: he does it at night.

Above: The second floor corner office in an abandoned general store in the Mojave desert. Night, full moon outside, completely dark office, natural flashlight rotated on it's axis on the floor and up at the ceiling.

His exposures are long -- usually 2-10 minutes -- and he augments whatever natural moonlight he finds with strobes, gelled flashlights and other low-tech stuff, to great effect. (With exposures so long, he can simply wander through the frame, literally painting the exposure with his lights, and he'll never show up in the final image.)

To find out more about how he achieves such a haunting effect in his work (and nerd out about urban exploration), I sat down (via email) with Troy, and asked him some questions. So check out out conversation, and more of his awesome photographs:
posts.jpg50s Panel Truck along the non-existent fence at an abandoned junkyard in Hodge, CA, a largely vacant Route 66 town near Barstow. Night, 2 minute exposure, full moon, distant sodium-vapor lights, and red and green-gelled flashlight.

MF: You've been taking photos of abandoned sites for awhile now -- 15 years or more, right? -- long before this kind of thing was considered cool. Would you call yourself an "urban explorer"?

TP: Yeah, I've been doing this since I was a teenager in the late 70s, though I didn't start taking pictures until 1989. I suppose I am an urban explorer by default. Going on 10 years ago I had a short e-mail correspondence with Jeff Chapman, the guy who coined the term "Urban Exploration" and wrote the now considered seminal book on the subject; "Infiltration." I don't remember much of what we talked about, but we were amused at how about how we both keep a container of baby wipes in our kit and how handy they were when going to these filthy places. Personally, I think UE is as old as mankind. The first time a caveman abandoned a cave, some other caveman came along and checked it out. It's human nature. Funny it took until 1995 to come up with a name for it.

lenticular.jpgThe ruins of a Socialist community near Llano in Antelope Valley, just off Highway 138. Abandoned in 1917, there's not much but a couple of walls and chimneys left. Night, full moon, 2 minute exposure, Canon 20D. Available light only. Looking south towards the enormous glow of Los Angeles bouncing off the fast moving Lenticular Clouds.

MF: I'm borderline obsessed with industrial decay and abandoned places ... clearly you are, too. What draws you to the kinds of places you photograph?

TP: The atmosphere. The sense of isolation and loneliness. I love the surreal feeling of wandering through an abandoned subdivision, alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Your senses become heightened and you feel the weight of time. Not spooky hollywood ghosts, but ghosts none the less. I try to bring all these sensations and emotions forth in my photography.

MF: Ever been chased by an ornery old coot with a shotgun?

TP: Yes, literally. At Roy's in Amboy on Route 66. Pretty well known place that's been in many movies and countless books and magazines. The guy who owned it at the time didn't want people to take pictures of it unless you paid him. I managed to get one shot off before he came after me. Not much will make me say "Yes sir!" and run away than a crazy old guy racking a shotgun and yelling "Get off'n my propity!"

trailer.jpgSalton Sea Beach, CA. Flooded and abandoned in the late 1970s. Over 100F, the smell was overwhelming. Tripod was sinking in the mud. Night, full moon, 5+ minutes, 160T film. Green and red-gelled strobe and red-gelled flashlight. This was cleaned up in the early 2000s.

MF: You obviously get great results, but night photography (esp. before digital came along) seems like it'd be a huge pain in the ass. Why make that your specialty?

TP: Yeah, back in the film days it was normal to shoot a 36 exposure roll of 8 minute shots over the course of a night only to come home with one or two usable images. The low hit rate was really frustrating. I stuck with it because I love being in these places alone in in the middle of the night. The night photography was a byproduct of my exploration, not the reason I was doing it. Over time I got better at it, learning what works and what doesn't.

It's important to understand that I am a commercial artist for a living. I do technical drawings which can be very elaborate and complex. When I went thru my 3D modeling phase I tended towards absurdly complicated projects using my rudimentary and outdated software. Friends tease me that I'm like one of those weirdos that locks themselves in the basement for 2 years and builds a 6 foot tall Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks. The idea of doing these complex set piece photos in difficult locations is just another example of that trait.

I'm not a fan of minimalism. I think that the best art needs to showcase the artists technique along with provoking an emotional response. The complex mixture of night photography and light painting in abandoned places fulfills that for me.

files.jpgThe Bethlehem Steel shipyard offices in San Francisco, CA. Canon 20D. Night, mostly dark room, flashlight, sodium vapor streetlights.

MF: Do you hang out with people sometimes, too?

TP: I'm a loner by nature. I think that personality trait is very common among night shooters.

The first 10 years I did night photography only a few people outside of friends and family knew I was doing it. I worked in a vacuum. I always shot alone. After putting my work online in 1998 people began to ask me about it. Some wanted to tag along. I refused all the advances. Not because I want to keep how I do this a secret, but because the process has a cathartic quality for me. Doing it was a very personal, almost religious thing. After my first book came out several forces conspired to make me stop shooting for about a year. By that time the first DSLRs that could do noise-free time exposures had hit the market and night photography became this "new" thing. I found I had become something of a cult figure. Lots of people wanted to shoot with me. When I bought a DSLR and began shooting again, I opened myself up to shooting with others who were also opening their favorite locations up to me. Since 2005 I've shot more images in more locations that I did in the previous 10 years. A lot of that is attributable to me starting to shoot with others.

But we're still a bunch of loners. It's funny to watch a group of night photographers descend on a location. Basically, they disperse and shoot alone most of the night.

texaco.jpgNorth Shore Marina, Salton Sea. All, the letters are gone now. That white crust on the ground? Dead fish. Millions of dead fish.

MF: Ever found anything just unutterably, unphotographably disgusting out in the middle of nowhere?

TP: Yeah, I've run across strangely mutilated sheep and decapitated horses a few times. Sacrificial looking stuff. Lots of weird things happen in the desert.

MF: A lot of the things you photograph -- abandoned trailers, cars, detritus -- aren't exactly on the map ... how do you find them? Do you just wander in the desert and get lucky, or do you have some secret Deep Throat-style source?

TP: That's evolved over time too. It started out by just driving around. Taking turns down unmarked roads and just seeing what's over the next hill. I still do a lot of that. But in the last 5 years or so I get a lot of e-mail from people asking me if i've been to this or that place. I have a database of locations and maps with notes scrawled all over them.

moonshadow.jpgAbove: "Moonshadow." Looking out from one of the abandoned wooden WWII era hangars at the old Army Air Force airfield in Tonopah, Nevada. This was a B24 and B25 training base during the war. Night, full moon. 4 minute exposure, Canon 20D.

MF: I'm looking at the photograph titled "Moonshadow." It's beautifully exposed -- but how do you know that you need four minutes to expose it? Is it just endless trial and error?

TP: Thanks. Yes. When I first started this it was all about trial and error. I took a lot of notes and experimented a lot. Then when I switched to digital in 2005 all my exposure info became obsolete and I basically had to relearn what worked and what didn't. But with the preview on the back of the camera I could simply chimp the shot until I was happy with it. This is why night photography has exploded in the digital age. It's just much easier.

That particular image, I got on the first try. I just exposed for the sky, knowing the interior would remain a silhouette. Generally I get the shot in the first or second try now, but I've been doing this a very long time, so I can look at a scene and have a pretty accurate sense of what exposure is required.

outdoor.jpgThe abandoned 45 Outdoor drive-in theater in New London, Wisconsin. Canon 20D. Summer sunset and yellow-gelled strobe flash.

MF: I'm picturing you poking around abandoned houses in a ghost town like New Idria. Do you have a buddy system, or do you go alone? I'm pretty sure I'd want a frickin' buddy.

TP: My wife feels the same way. She worries a lot, but I think hers, and others fears are generally unfounded.

I went to New Idria with another photographer. We didn't see a soul that night, but I understand from others that the one guy that lives there is a reclusive nut that likes to walk around with a gun and throw people out. But it's been my experience that the real danger of people in places like that is that they will want to follow you around all night like a puppy and talk your ear off because they are simply lonely and bored.

church.jpgAbandoned church lost in the coastal fog at Fort Ord, a decommissioned Army Base in Monterey, CA. Sodium vapor lights and green-gelled strobe. Canon 20D.

You can see more of Troy's work at his website, LostAmerica.com, or his extensive Flickr pages. And if you dig his stuff, be sure and pre-order his upcoming book of photography from Amazon!

escalator.jpgThe entrance vestibule of the spectacular Phoenix Trotting Park. Abandoned for decades, it has been the location for many films and the scene of many crimes. It's a long walk up that escalator . . . 160T film, 4 minute exposure, full moon, red-gelled strobe flash.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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