Photographer John Bendel said he didn’t choose the subject for his latest project—instead, the shuttered Spring Garden Public School No.1 chose him.
Bendel has photographed the same walls for four years at the closed school, now abandoned, in an effort to document its change in appearance as well as the graffiti inside it. The project, “4 Years/40 Walls,” was published on Bendel’s website in December of last year. The building is covered in graffiti from visitors.
Bendel, of Island Heights, New Jersey, started urban exploring in 2008.
“My first rule is point your camera at something interesting,” Bendel said. “I can’t find any place that is instantly and constantly more interesting than these places.”
Bendel picked up a camera for the first time in 1974, and later put it down to focus on work and his family. Bendel, 73, has a wife, Peggy, a son, Tom, and a daughter, Berne. He started exploring abandoned places while his wife was at work on Sunday mornings.
Between the years of 2011 and 2015, Bendel created his project inside the school, on 12th Street near Ogden. On Feb. 7, he walked through the dirty, decaying building once again, noticing a new addition: “American Education,” written on the walls in bold red and yellow.
“This entire school is an incredible, incredible, installation,” Bendel said. “To watch it change over time, to suffer all the insults it suffered and yet to provide a place for fascinating things to appear and exist.”
By chance, he was able to get into the school multiple times through a back entrance. After looking through his previous work, Bendel noticed a pattern in his photographs—he had been drawn to photographing the same walls multiple times.
“It’s that found quality that I like,” Bendel said. “It’s all part of the slow motion exercise, the slow motion deterioration.”
“I think [Bendel’s project] is awesome,” said John Webster, an urban explorer who has written two books about abandoned places in Philadelphia. “If you put it up against one of my photos [of the same school] from 2006, you wouldn’t even recognize it.”
Bendel had only run into two other urban explorers in Spring Garden No. 1—until recently. Riley Loula, a 2013 broadcast telecommunications and mass media alumnus and urban explorer, walked into the school for the first time one February morning.
“It’s so decrepit, but it’s so uniquely beautiful,” Loula said. “You can come into a place and do whatever you want, especially in a decaying place.”
The caved-in ceiling that had fallen across the stairs didn’t stop Bendel from visiting his favorite part of the building—the roof. Bendel said his confidence in exploring dangerous areas has come with age and experience.
Webster believes there is danger in urban exploring, but it only adds to the excitement, especially for younger generations. Ed Stradling, a 47-year-old urban explorer in Philadelphia, said he can picture himself exploring at age 73 as well.
“We are just going to walk in with cameras and flashlights and take pictures,” Stradling said. “They pretty much do all this crazy stuff because they’re kids, and we just take the opportunity to find the stuff and walk right in.”
“That’s part of the thrill of it,” Webster said. “If you gained access by yourself through something that was locked and you know that there’s nobody else in there, there’s a certain solace in that that you can’t get with anything else.”
As a documentarian, Bendel prides himself in the ability to seek out visually stimulating places, which drove him to complete his 40 Walls project. He paced from one end of the roof to the other, admiring Philadelphia’s skyline framed by the rooftop’s paint covered ledges.
“I find it just riveting at its best,” Bendel said of the school. “Look at it. Don’t you find it interesting to look at?”
Margo Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video by Margo Reed.