John Plashal, a Richmond photographer, visited Piedmont Arts to talk about his work, ‘A Beautifully Broken Virginia,’ which shows abandoned locations throughout the state.
The visit, part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Statewide Programs and sponsored by Kings Grant, featured Plashal, who discussed his journey in photography, the types of locations he photographs and the storytellers he encounters along the way.
“When you see the topic ‘A Beautifully Broken Virginia’ or ‘Stories of an Abandoned Virginia,’ you’re tantalized enough to want to come (and) see, because we all love, as people, stories, right? Stories are always just something that we intrinsically enjoy as human beings. Then we see the word ‘abandoned’ and, even though we aren’t all Virginians, many of us are native Virginians. So, it all makes for a pretty appealing title,” Plashal said.
Plashal, himself a Virginia native, became interested in photography as a hobby, but that soon flourished into a need to learn more and tell the stories of the buildings he photographs, particularly the houses.
“I was immediately drawn to them. I loved the texture, I loved the mood, from a photographic perspective,” he said. “This started out as nothing more than wanting to learn how to use my camera and taking pictures of old places that I find in the middle of nowhere.”
Plashal believes photos of abandoned places elicit an emotional response that is hard to explain.
“These houses, I heard it best from somebody, they arouse an emotion in us that, to many, is inexplicable,” he said.
Plashal’s method for finding houses to photograph is one that some find interesting, and others find crazy.
“Remember ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey?’ I’ll literally blindfold myself and point to a place on a Virginia map and say, ‘Okay I’m going to Clifton Forge.’ I’ll drive to Clifton Forge. My first stop will be a gas station. You can always identify the locals. Friendly as they can be,” he said.
Plashal said he then asks about the diner frequented by local residents. He goes there and asks around for stories and notable locations in the area. In addition to houses, he also photographs churches, schools, libraries, diners, masonic lodges, asylums, and more.
Eventually, he realized that he didn’t just want to photograph the places, he wanted to learn about them. “I needed to know about these places,” he said.
Plashal recounted a story of taking a picture of a house and wanting to learn more about it. He asked the woman who lived next door about the house, and was told she didn’t know much about it besides the fact that the woman who lived there made the best coconut pie in Virginia.
Later on, he was developing his presentation in retirement communities, he shared a picture of the house. He then saw a man he believed to be having a medical emergency.
“Then his 69-year-old nephew says, “John, John, don’t worry about it. This is my uncle Charles. He’s just having an emotional moment because he grew up in that house,’” Plashal said, adding that retelling the story causes a physical reaction.
“Right now, I have chills on my arms,” he said to the audience. Turning back to the encounter, “I said, ‘Sir, can I ask you a question. Was there a woman that you knew of that made a real tasty coconut pie?’
The man answered, ‘Yes indeed, that was my momma,’” Plashal said, adding that he’ll never forget what happened to him after that, which he considers the moment that “justified this entire journey.”
Plashal said he spent hours listening to the stories as told by Charles Johnson, a 96-year-old who had recently had a stroke and spent decades mourning his son.
“All of a sudden, this hobby of mine, of photographing abandoned places, turned into a very personal experience,” he said. “To the point where I gave a total stranger, 96 years young, a beautiful opportunity to reminisce.”
This is one of many stories of Plashal “taking off his public speaking hat” and “no longer being a professional speaker, but becoming a professional listener.”
Plashal said people often ask him how he identifies himself as an artist.
While he used to think it was about how much money he could make, as time went on, it became less about that and more about learning and telling stories.
“I realized the importance of how you can touch other human beings and your fellow Virginians by showing them images like this and getting to meet people like Charles Johnson,” he said.
John Plashal gave his presentation “A Beautifully Broken Virginia” at Piedmont Arts on Nov. 17.