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Chicago Center for Literature and Photography Photographer Feature January 18, 2013

Katherine Hodges deadmalls

Location: Chicago and all over the Midwest I’ve carried a camera in Chicago virtually every day I’ve lived here (since moving from Iowa in 1995), had some classes in film photography, went digital in the midlate 2000s, joined Flickr in 2007, and am still doing everything with point-and-shoot cameras. My main interest is the built environment, especially abandoned buildings (inside and out), retail, and transit.

Tell us how these photos of dead malls came about in the first place. Where are the locations of some of the places we’re seeing? I first happened to shoot malls because I was obsessed with documenting specific chains (like Borders) that often were located in malls, then I started participating in the Picture Black Friday annual photography project in 2010. It just kind of spiraled from there and I visit any malls I can get to (often by bus, train, and/or bicycle; a challenge since malls are oriented towards cars). Ones shown here range from a small 1950s-era shopping center in Gary, Indiana, to the infamous late-2000s, still not fully occupied, Block 37 development in Chicago’s Loop, to the more typical 1960s-70s large suburban mall.

So many abandoned, dark hallways in these places. Is safety ever an issue? How often do you feel like a character from a post-apocalyptic thriller? It’s undeniably eerie to be in a dead mall with empty storefronts and few people around. Malls that are attractive and sunny, like Crestwood (MO) and Charlestowne (IL), are creepy in one way, and ones with dark hallways, like Euclid Square (OH, mostly just churches now) and Crossroads (NE, with a closed second level), are unsettling in another. Dead malls usually seem to have very little security around, but I actually prefer that so I’m less likely to be hassled for taking photos (this has only happened once in all my mall photography, however, in the parking lot of River Oaks, south suburban Chicago).

I was so surprised to see how many of these 75-percent-abandoned malls still go to a lot of trouble to decorate for Christmas, even when it’s these sad little displays the management company can barely afford. Why do you think this is? And is this part of why so many malls are having so many problems these days, because they’re run by old-fashioned people who think that bringing in Santa once a year is enough to save their business? This is what’s made me want to read books on shopping malls and whatever industry magazines and websites I can find; I just don’t know, other than that they feel the need to keep up appearances. Whether a small holiday display (usually without anyone playing Santa Claus) is more or less depressing than nothing is hard to say.

What kinds of places are still open for business in these dead malls? Are the elderly still showing up in the mornings for their mallwalks? Mall walking is still a useful function of these malls. Dead malls try to adapt to a changing clientele and will have a number of independent stores and downmarket versions of major mall chains (though a few chains like Bath & Body Works seem to hang on). The amazing variety of functions for malls is one of the best parts of visiting and photographing them—I’ve seen a library branch, firefighting museum, politician’s office, tourism bureaus, teen centers, and many churches. I’ve also been surprised at how many independent bookstores, new and used, are in malls now (dead ones and successful ones).

The saddest photos of all to me were of the giant but utterly empty food courts. Is this because food courts were such an integral and unique part of the entire mall as entity, back in the ‘80s during their height, and were also our main social gathering places when teens ourselves back then? Do you ever think about these things when walking through the cavernous spaces yourself? I have fond memories of hanging out at my small hometown mall (North Grand in Ames, Iowa), although we weren’t even big enough for a food court. Some of these spaces are still attractive and it’s a shame they don’t have ways to draw crowds.

CCLaP Photo Feature: Katherine Hodges, "deadmalls"  

Every week the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP) releases a small PDF feature of an interesting individual photographer,...

CCLaP Photo Feature: Katherine Hodges, "deadmalls"  

Every week the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP) releases a small PDF feature of an interesting individual photographer,...