Risk and Reward: Photographing the John S. Davidson School
by John M. Mulhouse
It’s been a long time since I was inside the John S. Davidson Magnet School for the Fine Arts on Telfair and 11th Street. Built in 1933, the building was condemned in the late 1990’s and has sat empty since 1997. By the time a friend and I visited, it had been vacant for years. But while up on the second floor the roof had partially collapsed, the rest of the building was in pretty good shape. In fact, classroom schedules were still posted beside doors, lesson plans remained on chalkboards and, tellingly, several large mirrors hadn’t been smashed. It was eerie to wander the dark halls and wonder why everyone had left in such a hurry. The answer, of course, was asbestos. Science fiction writer J.G. Ballard once advised that a person be faithful to their obsessions, to “let them guide you like a sleepwalker.” When it comes to photography I consider this to be something like a Golden Rule, and if following my obsessions leads me to wander into an asbestos-filled building, well, I can’t say I didn’t know what I was doing.
The interiors of buildings can be difficult to shoot under the best of circumstances. Lighting can be harsh or low or patchy or just plain weird. This is why people buy expensive lighting rigs. Of course, once a building is abandoned interiors become even tougher to photograph. Inside the John S. Davidson School, the only available light came through the windows and fell haphazardly, leaving much of the space in relative darkness. Roaming decaying buildings requires a constant awareness of one’s surroundings, so I don’t lug around tripods or external flashes. This can make things interesting where proper exposure is concerned. It’s also why I like to use the “AUTO” setting on my camera so much.
We began at the back of the building, moving slowly down the halls, going from room to room, not touching anything, just getting to know the old place and maybe capturing a few metaphorical ghosts in the process. Eventually we entered the theater through a small backroom that led right out onto the stage. This photo was taken after only a few steps, before I’d even considered other shots. Suddenly standing above all those empty, broken seats in a room that had seen decades of performances, I just clicked the shutter. Despite the large windows, the theater was somewhat dark and much of the shot is ever-so-slightly underexposed. On the other hand, the flash has washed out the front of the stage. While perhaps flaws, I think the juxtaposition adds a nice sense of drama. As usual, I was using film and didn’t know any of this until I saw the prints. There is virtually no post-processing.
I took a few more photographs in the theater, but only a few. None were as good as this one taken in the first rush of discovery. I’ve heard nothing but fond memories of this school from former students, a rarity worth noting. Of all the shots I took that day, I believe this has been the favorite amongst alumni, some of whom stood on this stage. I am glad to have captured it then--I believe it is in much worse shape now--and can only hope that not too many asbestos fibers were inhaled in the effort.
Additional photos of the John S. Davidson School can be found at