About six years ago, Mitch Nicholson was in the middle of his freshman year of college. “And I just needed to get off campus for a while and diffuse my mind,” he said.
He gained a sense of relaxation exploring the countryside of Mahaska County.
“I ran across some abandoned structures, and I found that they were aesthetically pleasing in some way,” Nicholson said. “So, I began to photograph what I was finding.”
He started to share those photos on a Tumblr page and then launched an Abandoned Iowa Facebook page in 2011 to increase Internet traffic. From there, the project started to blossom.
The Indianola native, now living in Des Moines, has a knack for finding abandoned properties — churches, businesses, bridges, homes.
Some of his first Abandoned Iowa photos were of the former Vennard College campus in University Park. Started in 1910, the college closed in 2008. Those photos solidified the Abandoned Iowa project, Nicholson said.
“The buildings were gracefully dilapidated,” he said. “Time and weather and neglect had basically destroyed them, but the aesthetic was super interesting and the architecture was intricate.”
Nicholson was fairly new to photography when he took up his Abandoned Iowa project.
“I picked up the camera in roughly 2010,” he said. “I took one photography course that taught me about framing and lining up a good shot.”
Nicholson's photo subjects are often a risky environment — rickety bridges, condemned buildings, caustic manufacturing sites.
“I don't actually encourage people to visit these places,” he said. “There is risk involved, both legally and with physical danger.”
That's one of the reasons Nicholson shares his photos on the Abandoned Iowa Facebook page (facebook.com/abandonediowa), where he has more than 16,000 followers.
And he shares his work through appearances, like the one he will make at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 7, at Roland Public Library. The event is free and open to the public.
Nicholson appeared at the library in 2014 and “he did a wonderful job,” said Sarah Almond, the library's program director.
He will share some of his current work and plans to also have videos of his project.
“One of the subjects I've been really interested in is what I call late-stage capitalism,” he said. “Like large shopping malls that are becoming extinct in some places — dying malls. I've photographed South Ridge Mall, and when Kmart was closing in Marshalltown, I started photographing it six days before it started closing.”
Nicholson often visits places from his own childhood memories for Abandoned Iowa. For example, in March, he shared more than two dozen photos to a Facebook album about White Water University in Des Moines.
“The once thriving waterpark now sits empty and abandoned,” he wrote in the post that accompanied the photos. “The joyful patrons are long gone and now the only noise heard is the sound of the nearby highway and the only smell is that of rotting wood and stagnant pools of water. The splashing has silenced. The go-carts remain stationary.
“White Water opened in 1980 as Smith's Super Shoot. It eventually took off and switched owners before being renamed White Water University. It was closed in 2005 amidst financial hardship and complaints amongst locals. White Water was the go-to summer time attraction for many Iowans. It was home to a famous 'wave pool,' a multitude of colorful water slides, a mini-put course and a go-cart track. I've personally visited there on several occasions in my youth during day care field trips. Sadly, my most recent trip wasn't as joyous as the times visited in my youth.”
Most of the abandoned properties will continue to decay, but Nicholson will continue to travel around the state, “documenting the forgotten, the collapsed and the condemned.”