The Art of Old 9

Walter Arnold Finds Art in the Abandoned

When Walter Arnold moved to Asheville in 2005, he had never even picked up a camera. The then-branch manager moved here not for our notoriously inspirational landscape and picturesque vistas, but for a position with SunTrust Bank—but it didn’t take him long to discover the artistic benedictions of our fair city. As he began exploring the wooded hillsides around Asheville, Arnold picked up a digital SLR camera to capture the scenic settings he would stumble upon during his adventures. “Needless to say, I was instantly hooked, and could not put the camera down!” Arnold says with a smile.

But it still wasn’t until four years later that Arnold discovered his true passion for the art of photography. The natural wonderments Arnold captured with his lens in the mountains around Asheville were undoubtedly beautiful, but they were beginning to lose their sheen, his photos fading with the crowd of dozens of local nature photographers. “In 2009 I quite literally stumbled into the subject matter I was unknowingly craving,” he says. While visiting St. Augustine, Florida, Arnold asked about interesting locations to shoot portraits for his friend; his query led him to an airplane graveyard. “I instantly fell in love with the decaying and dismantled planes and simultaneously found my niche: ‘The Art of Abandonment,’” Arnold remembers. “After that, I set out with the intent to capture beauty in unexpected places and preserve the history, memories and stories of abandoned historic locations.”

It’s an artistic quest that’s taken Arnold across the country, from an abandoned resort in the Catskills to an overgrown theme park in Arkansas. Dusty halls, peeling paint and thickly-weeded lots serve as Arnold’s muses. His work captures the forlornness of remnants, the aching sadness of abandonment, and the surprising beauty of history. Using an artistic technique called High Dynamic Range photography, Arnold is able to capture multiple exposures, ranging from midnight dark to daylight bright, revealing a hyperreal scene of crisp detail that often borders on the hypnagogic. The images are simultaneously haunting and heartening.

When his position was eliminated at the bank in 2012, Arnold made the tough decision to photograph and show full time. “I had been building my fine art business for the past four years so I was not starting from scratch, but leaving behind a steady income and benefits to try to sell art was not an easy choice,” says Arnold. “The term ‘starving artist’ was coined for a reason!” But Arnold found quick success as a bonafide artist, earning both national and international recognition; one of his images even inspired famed director Ron Howard’s short film When You Find Me.

Despite his big time success, Arnold still finds inspiration in our mountains. “Asheville is actually the polar opposite of most places that I look to photograph, and that’s a good thing!” Arnold notes. “Asheville is a great example of what can be achieved when we actively work to preserve and adaptively reuse or restore historic buildings, rather than tear them down.” Arnold uses the Grove Arcade’s success story as an example: when the federal government planned to completely remodel the historic building in the ‘80s, Asheville’s citizens banned together to preserve and repurpose the stunning architecture. “Asheville’s success stories, like the Grove Arcade, are what inspire me to seek out these historic places that have been abandoned and largely forgotten,” he says. “As a photographer, I seek out these locations not only to showcase the beauty that once was (and still is) there, but also to tell the stories and histories that they hold. To this end, I love to partner with historic preservation groups, not only to help me gain access to these locations, but to donate the images I produce to help support their efforts to save these places.”

It’s a noble endeavor. As America ages, she becomes a treasure trove of forgotten landmarks and bygone eras; rather than let her history fade into the thickened grasses and crumbling facades of time, Arnold draws it back into the light of day, finding art in abandonment.