Nighthawks Behind the Lens: Interview with Troy Paiva

Ransom Riggs

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:

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50s 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.

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The 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!"

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Salton 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.

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The 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.

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North 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.

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Above: "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.

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The 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.

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Abandoned 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,, or his extensive Flickr pages. And if you dig his stuff, be sure and pre-order his upcoming book of photography from Amazon!

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The 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.