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Photographs of abandoned Utah sites offer a last glimpse of a disappearing past

a photo of raging waters water park.
Nick Bagley
Raging Waters, also known as Seven Peaks Water Park, sat empty for several years. Demolition began on the site earlier this month.

A creaky old house tilting to the side. Rusted out cars. A desolate mining operation. These are just some of the places captured in the book “Abandoned Utah.” It’s the work of local photographer Nick Bagley. KUER’s Caroline Ballard sat down with him to talk about what draws people to abandoned places.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: How did you get started exploring abandoned places? 

Nick Bagley: I got into it when I was relatively young. I think a lot of kids see abandoned places and just want to go play around and explore. As I got older, I started to get into photography through high school. And then going into college, that's when I met more people that were into [abandoned places]. I thought it was just me that was doing it, and then all of a sudden it's like, whoa, there's this whole community out there.

CB: You photographed these places and did a lot of the work for this book two years ago. Are there places that are gone now that you captured for this project?

NB: Not necessarily gone, but in the process of being destroyed. A lot of people know about the Raging Waters water park. When I first photographed that, it was basically untouched. It looked like a cool, abandoned water park straight out of “Zombieland,” or something like that. I would go back to check up on it, and then I noticed more homeless people and drug addicts. Then I came back and half the buildings someone had torched. Now they're taking it apart. That's one of those places that with COVID and the price of real estate going up, it's no wonder that the city got rid of it. But it was also becoming so dangerous.

CB: Why do abandoned places, ghost towns, capture our imagination like they do?

NB: I think it's a lot to do with the mystery of it. Even if you know the history behind it, it still looks completely different than when it was in operation. I think Hollywood has a lot to do with it, too. If you watch horror movies, there's certain specific houses, they have a specific look to them. It just kind of gets your brain moving and you create stories. My brain, it just zones out and creates its own narrative. I try to do that with my photographs: to project to the people that are looking at the photos the way I view it in my brain and just try to create a compelling story.

CB: There are also some criticisms of ruin photography in urban settings — that it can be exploitative. Do you have a set of rules that you have for yourself in taking these kinds of pictures?

NB: First off, I never break into any place, that's like the number one rule. I never want to get arrested. Like in my book, I think the majority of the places, if not all of them, it felt like I was legally there. There [were] no signs telling me not to be there.

Don't break anything. Don't take anything, either. That's another big one. I have people that will reach out asking about certain places because, ‘Oh, there is a pool table that I want to take for my house.’ But that's one of my personal rules: leave everything. Because if everyone comes there and takes something then it's not going to look the same.

Even within the exploration community, people will get mad because it's like, ‘Oh, you’re posting these pictures, you're going to ruin the spot.’ But in my opinion, I feel like everyone has the right to go to these places. What makes me so special that I'm the only one that's allowed there? I guess I don't see it that way. And a lot of these places, even though I like that they're abandoned, I think they could serve the public better if they were renovated or some of them even destroyed, because you can only hold onto things for so long.

CB: These places that you've photographed are in states of decay and ruin, and will soon be either reclaimed by the elements or demolished to make way for new development. What do we lose when these places disappear altogether?

NB: We lose the history. Even if it's in the books or if it's online, it doesn't mean people are going to think of it anymore. There's a piece of graffiti — actually I have a picture of it in my book. It says, "History dies when condos rise." There are definitely a lot of places that deserve to be preserved, and we hope that they will get preserved. But unfortunately, the way the world is right now, and even the cost of real estate is going up, a lot of these places will probably just get bulldozed. It's a shame. Taking these photographs and going to explore them is my way of trying to preserve them a little bit.

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