Upstate New York has an abundance of “time capsules,” and one photographer has spent years documenting them.
These relics come in the form of abandoned homes, left to slowly decay in the elements. Sometimes they are vacant and vast, while others retain furniture and clothes and photographs of their former owners.
They caught the interest of photographer Bryan Sansivero, a Long Island native, who majored in film making in college, but post-graduation headed towards a career in still photos. Fashion photoshoots, events, and commercial work were his bread-and-butter, while on the side he was documenting his own personal adventures.
“I always had this passion to explore, so I was doing that on the side, not making money from it,” Sansivero said.
His connection to abandoned homes began while visiting family in rural Pennsylvania when he would go exploring and get inside homes that look like they had been untouched for years. The first one he entered was a home from the 1700s, set deep in the woods on an old fruit orchard.
“I thought, these houses are really cool and how could all of this stuff be left behind?” he said. “There was a piano and all of these old photos. I thought it was fascinating. I love history and old things. The old photographs are amazing to me.”
Slowly he started merging his fashion photography with his love of abandoned buildings, having photoshoots with models with decaying mansions, country homes, and institutions as the backdrop. Then, the homes became the main attraction.
Sansivero said he might spend four or five hours photographing a home depending on how big it is. He started creating stories on social media featuring 30-40 images of one home and his following began to grow. As it did, he began to connect with other explorers on the social platforms who would give him recommendations of where to go next.
What started as a small solo endeavor turned into discovering hundreds of homes and meeting lots of people along the journey to photographing the past.
Out of all of the houses he’s photographed and posted online, Sansivero said he gets the most inquiries about the “Catskill Clown House,” which has been featured on many blogs and news sites. The mansion home is located on a large abandoned winery deep within the Hudson Valley. There is the main home with four to five outbuildings, including a barn with wine barrels, a wine cellar full of bottles, and grapes still growing outside on the vines.
The outside of the main home looks unassuming and a bit modern, but inside, it was interestingly decorated with bright colors and seemingly big-top themes.
Since he shot photos of the home two years ago, it has now been sold and renovated.
One of the most popular questions he gets on his social media posts is, “where is this?” A tough question to answer Sansivero admitted, as the information could cause an influx of people to the homes. He said for some houses, even though they look completely abandoned, many of them still have owners keeping an eye on them.
Also, the more well-known a property gets, the higher the risk of it being trashed and graffitied. He told the story of one mansion home in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
“It had 50 rooms, and it looked medieval. It was incredible. One of the models I was with gave out the location to someone who took five or six friends there and from that point on it got destroyed, vandalized, and completely graffitied, which is upsetting for me to see and hear,” Sansivero said.
Because of this, his group exploring trips have ended, and he is back to mainly solo excursions to help preserve these domestic fossils.
Now, after years of taking hundreds of photographs, Sansivero has turned them into a book titled “American Decay.” The book features homes from all over the country, but he said about 50% of photos in the book are homes in Upstate New York.
He said some Upstate New York counties, and towns are ripe with abandoned homes, like the all-but abandoned town of Parksville in Sullivan County. Nearby, with vacation homes and former resort towns dried up, he said that the “Borscht Belt” area of the Catskills had some of the best homes he’d ever photographed.
However, not every abandoned home he found was a candidate for the book.
“Sometimes I would go into a house and know it wasn’t right for the book. Then I would go into another and the walls are amazing; so vibrant and eye-catching. It’s perfect,” Sansivero said. “I like to have the ceiling leaking, paint peeling, and it’s in a really bad state. I try to incorporate what’s left behind while also showing that it’s clearly abandoned.”
For the future, he hopes to publish another book focusing just on kitchens in these abandoned homes and possibly spending time overseas doing similar explorations.
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