by Sara Jewell
Scattered throughout Atlantic Canada are houses long abandoned and in rough shape… yet not entirely empty. Some have attracted new inhabitants—raccoons or porcupines—and some give the eerie impression of continued use with curtains blowing in the wind through broken windows.
Most of us would steer clear of derelict abodes, unwilling to risk our lives by exploring, but for Pugwash, NS, photographer Fred Horton, the siren call of an abandoned house is irresistible.
“It’s the mystery. I go into the houses and there are decorations, old curtains, pictures, furniture in some houses, even letters,” he says. “I never take anything but I read the letters and suddenly, I’m transported back in time. You don’t realize how much technology has changed until you read a letter from the 1930s. It was winter and they couldn’t go anywhere. The letter would take forever to travel there.”
He calls this experience with a life left behind “a haunting” even though he claims he’s never felt a presence nearby.
Fred discovered photography when he was a teenager living in Riverview, New Brunswick. For a while, he and his friends were avid hikers but when they lost interest, Fred chose to continue going alone since he could simply walk out of his house and be in the woods.
“At first, it was quite scary because I’d never been in the woods alone,” he recalls. “Suddenly, there were sounds and all kinds of things going on that I didn’t recognize so it took a while to adjust to that. I got lost; I wouldn’t even believe my compass.”
But Fred stuck with it and added a Kodak Instamatic camera to his hiking gear.
“Photography came naturally from being out in nature; there was a natural flow because I was seeing beauty and the camera started to capture it.”
He says his artistic eye comes from his mother, now in her 90s, who was an accomplished watercolour painter.
“Her influence allowed me to approach photography artistically rather than commercially.”
For him, photography is a spiritual practice, and the experience of being in nature as a child was a powerful influence.
“I could feel my connection to nature. It was happening but I couldn’t explain it; it was hard to talk about.”
It was such a strong feeling, however, that the teenaged Fred actually sought out churches in order to talk to people about what he was experiencing.
“I asked what they were teaching, what they were offering, and they would get their Bible out and read from it. But there was stuff happening out there,” so Fred returned to the woods until he graduated from high school.
After studying psychology at university, he spent 10 years working in Dartmouth at a treatment centre for at-risk children ages five to 13. He remembers it as a “completely different world,” with the psychiatrists, social workers and child care workers trying to make things better for the kids. When he discovered a fellow staff member who was into the outdoors, Fred suggested taking the kids into nature.
“We took them to Cape Breton and Apple River. We took them on some pretty rough stuff, these 10- and 12-year-olds. Sometimes there weren’t even trails; we just went hiking. But we found taking them into nature helped them.”
When the treatment centre closed, Fred worked in a few group homes, which he found less satisfying, and eventually, he found a job managing the camera department at Eaton’s in Halifax. Throughout these jobs, however, he’d been doing photography, getting bigger cameras and more lenses.
“I’m pretty much self-taught,” he says, “although I’ve taken a few courses.”
As his talent increased, so did the demand for his photographs. He started selling his landscape photos wholesale to stores, and attending trade shows, which is how he met his wife, Marilyn.
In 1990, the couple moved to Pugwash when Marilyn was hired as a manager at a local company. They rented then later purchased the large heritage home next to the post office because Fred envisioned a gallery on the main floor of the house to showcase his photos.
Living in rural Nova Scotia has not only allowed him to explore woods, fields and beaches close to his home, but also to explore Atlantic Canada during the off-season. Fred has hiked and photographed Gros Morne National Park and the back country of Newfoundland and Labrador, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, and even his old haunts in New Brunswick.
His favourite seasons are fall and winter, particularly the brief time before the snow arrives but everything is frozen.
“Every year, we see the fall colours when they come around again and we’re just as amazed. All your senses are really cooking,” says Fred. “I also like the early part of winter when everything freezes up and things are frozen in the ice. I love walking over the ice and looking down. When you photograph it, it looks like a painting.”
It was his mother who introduced him to the charms and mysteries of abandoned houses.
“She painted them, so we’d drive around together looking for them so she could photograph them to paint from. I started to photograph them as well.”
His mother is no longer able to paint or travel, so Fred will make a card of a photo and send it to her with a note about where it was taken, “so she can still travel with me in a way.”
That bond means he’ll never lose the love of going out and finding abandoned houses and vehicles. He scouts for them during the winter when they’re easier to find with the leaves off the trees, and does his best to get permission from the property owner.
“There are places I know about that I go back to for the different seasons. There’s a progression of the house as it begins to disintegrate and fall apart, as ceilings open up and light comes in. The house becomes a living studio,” says Fred, who scouts out a house first with a viewer that he uses to frame his compositions, before bringing in his camera gear.
Of course, you don’t want to be in a house when the ceiling “opens up.” If Fred is haunted by anything, it’s the extraordinary experience he had near Bass River, NS. The old, abandoned house was in really rough shape. Most of the top floor had fallen onto the ground floor but the stairs were solid and part of the upstairs was intact.
“I went up the stairs carefully and down the hallway to this bedroom. There was a nice curtain flowing in the room but I knew the light was going to be better in the afternoon so I decided to come back later,” he remembers.
When he turned to leave, the bedroom door swung and hit his finger, leaving it sore and bleeding. He started to feel weak and woozy.
“I wondered what was going on,” remembers Fred, “because it was just a banged finger. I thought I should sit down—that’s how weak I was feeling—but the floor was a mess of junk and garbage.”
The next thing he knew, he woke up on the ground floor with debris on his face.
“The last time I was conscious, I was upstairs,” he recalls. “I must have fainted and fallen from the floor above to the floor below.”
A mystery, indeed. Fred claims someone must have been watching over him because he missed landing on a pile of two-by-fours and a fireplace hearth. He came away with a few scratches on his back, and the cut finger, but that was it.
“I went down the road to the pharmacy for some bandages then went back that afternoon and took the pictures I wanted. That was my closest moment to ‘game over’ in my photography career.”
While he’s never encountered even the hint of a ghost in any of the abandoned houses he visits, Fred admits he doesn’t always feel comfortable in some houses, “especially if there’s furniture in the house. You almost expect to walk around a corner and meet somebody, because there are beds and stuff like that.”
He will return to a house more than once, and throughout the seasons, knowing there are things he missed the first time he visited.
After opening his gallery in 1996, Fred eventually began to do his own printing, calling it “a great joy” to have control over the result. Several years ago, the quality of printing canvas improved and now he prints exclusively on canvas.
“I love it. There’s no glass over the work and canvas is textured,” he explains, “which means the light works differently on the canvas.”
He’s chasing the light, with his eyes, through the lens, and it’s the light that draws him into the mystery of an old house. “Why did they leave?” Fred Horton wonders as he lifts his camera and captures the stillness of life, abandoned.
Header no caption
Header credit: Fred Horton
Intro caption: Fred Norton finds the siren call of an abandoned house is irresistible.
Intro credit: Shaun Whalen