Bodie Ghost Town: Photographic Bliss

| June 24, 2012
Bodie Ghost Town

A decayed residence in Bodie, California

It is rumored that one little girl, whose family was taking her to the desolate and infamous Bodie Ghost Town in California, wrote in her diary, “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.” The phrase came to be known throughout the West. It may have seemed like hell to her, but to me it was a bastion of photographic hope and opportunity. Why did we leave the sanctuary of the Yosemite Valley to visit a windswept dusty ghost town on the California/Nevada border? Simply put, it provided a perfect photographic destination at the end of an incredibly beautiful drive through the Sierra Mountains.

Bodie Ghost Town

Bodie, a town that once boasted a population of about 10,000, is now a historic state park and a mere shadow of its former self. Although only about 5% of the Bodie ghost town structures are still standing, there is a lot to see and photograph at the park. The town is now in a state of “arrested decay,” which is at the core of its allure for photographers. The remaining structures are pretty much as they were left when the town was abandoned after its heyday in 1859. The town rose to prominence as gold mining declined along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Prospectors that crossed the eastern slope to find gold made a rich discovery in Virginia City. The gold strike in Virginia City led to a wild rush to the surrounding high desert county, giving birth to to the town of Bodie.

Bodie Ghost Town

A street in Bodie, California

According to the park guide, killings occurred with monotonous regularity, often on a daily basis. Robberies, street fights and stage holdups provided variety and the the town’s 65 saloons offered a place for rest and relaxation after a long day of hard work in the mines. The Reverend F. M. Warrington saw the town in 1881 as “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempest of lust and passion.” The only passion I had was to look in all the buildings for things to photograph.

Instead of lamenting about not being able to go inside many of the structures, I looked for opportunities to work with what was there. Although many of the structures were locked, they had remnants of their past lives in tact. It was as if everyone got up one day and decided to leave everything behind. The general store is fully stocked, the school still has texts on the shelf, and the saloon still has bottles on the bar.

With such compelling and unique subject matter, I have assembled a series of photographs that I made at the Bodie ghost town. The photograph at the top of this post is the first one in the series. To take the photo, I had to shoot through dirty and distorted glass, which gave it an appropriate naturally eerie feel. Shooting though glass with bright reflections from the sun presented a challenge. To combat that, Donna was kind enough to hold up a light jacket behind me to block the sun and kill the reflection as I shot through the glass. I was drawn to the light cascading through the divided window and the pattern that it left on the floor. It just so happened that there was an old pot bathed in the light on the floor that made for a perfect focal point.

Bodie Ghost Town

An antique scale on a store counter in Bodie, California

In the photograph above, I could not resist the old dusty scale on the store shelf. I used a narrow aperture to focus on the scale while blurring the background without completely obscuring what was on the shelves. I love how the lines and patterns in the background complete the composition around the scale.

Below is another image in the series called, “A Place Once Called Home.” I could not help thinking about the fact that this was once someone’s home and a mother must have rocked her baby to sleep in the now dilapidated rocking chair. Again, I was fascinated by the light coming through the window and how it created a perfect path to the chair as the focal point.

Bodie Ghost Town

“A Place Once Called Home” – Bodie Ghost Town Series

Shown below is the Standard Mine and Mill on the west slope of Bodie. The buildings are extremely unsafe so they are closed to the public. The Standard Mill produced nearly $15 million over 25 years, causing Bodie’s population to rise from 20 to an estimated 10,000 miners, gamblers and entrepreneurs.

Bodie Ghost Town

The Standard Stamp Mill in Bodie, California

And finally, below is a shot of the head frame and machinery located near the entrance of the park. It is hard to pass up  the rich textures and patina on the metals set against the barren landscape. I used the hardware in the background on the right to balance the composition.

Bodie Ghost Town

Head frame and machinery in Bodie, California

I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey into our western heritage. Any photographer would have a great time shooting in Bodie Historic State Park. If you are already in the Yosemite Valley, it is an easy day trip that will take you past some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States. I would plan about 3.5 hours for the drive including a few stops along the way for photos of the scenery and lunch. For reference, I have included a map below that gives you an idea of how to get there from the Yosemite Valley. Have a fabulous week!

Bodie Ghost Town

Our 100-mile trek over Tioga Pass to Bodie, California


Category: Photography, Travel

Comments (3)

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  1. Ying Xiong says:

    This is truly poetic vision — I especially love the desaturated color palette. Is there any post-processing done to the color to create this effect? Thanks!

  2. Holy smokes here, Lee, my blood stopped dead in my veins with this series!! GREAT compositions as always, you’ve really brought this wonderful old haunted place to life for us all to enjoy my friend!

  3. A.Barlow says:

    Really like the read and love the shots you came back with.