Photographing an abandoned town (Ocean Falls, BC). A collection of digital and film images.
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
What is Ocean Falls?
Ocean Falls is a community on the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada. Formerly a large company town owned by Crown Zellerbach, today it's home to only a few dozen full-time residents.
The community is only accessible by boat or seaplane. It's about a 2-5 hour boat ride from Bella Coola (weather and size of boat depending).
Some quick Wikipedia facts
- Ocean Falls was established as a company owned and operated townsite for people working at the pulp and paper mill
-The town consisted of large apartments, duplexes and single-family homes
-In its prime, Ocean Falls was home to around 3900 people, a K-12 school system, its own hospital, and one of the province's largest hotels
-There were float planes arriving and departing every day. Larger amphibious planes were flying passengers in from Vancouver and other larger settlements. The town was also served by freighters which would bring in supplies from Vancouver
-The town facilities were shut down between 1973-1980 due to it not being an economically feasible business anymore
-Today, much of the town has been demolished, and many of the remaining buildings are in decay
-The town is now home to a bitcoin mining operation due to the availability of electricity that would otherwise not be utilized
Gear and photography technique
1. Canon 5D MKiii (digital)
2. Canon EOS-3 (film)
1. Canon EF 50mm f1.2L
2. Canon EF 35mm f1.4L
Kodak Portra 160
My setup consisted of 2 Canon semi-pro bodies - 1 film, 1 digital. I chose 2 prime Canon L lenses (35mm and 50mm are my go-to) and Kodak Portra 160 film for it's wonderful subdued colours. Looking back I wish I had brought Kodak Portra 400, as there were lots of areas in darkness. Camera settings were around f4 and a 1/200th shutter speed, give or take.
All photos were taken crouching down to give a more humble perspective. The 35mm was better suited for capturing more area in these small rooms, so I swapped that lens between bodies.
Ocean Falls through my eyes
My family has a small fishing boat and once or twice a year we make a trip to Shearwater, BC (a small island community) to go salmon fishing. I'd been to Ocean Falls twice before but never with a decent camera. This trip I insisted we make another stop, so I could capture this piece of Canadian history before the salty, sea air wastes it away completely.
The fishing was slow, so on day 5 we took a morning boat ride to Ocean Falls. The water was calm that morning so we were tied up at the Ocean Falls' dock in just 45 minutes (that can sometimes take 2+ hours). To the left you can see one of the rather large and extravagant buildings, which was a labyrinth of concrete inside.
Inside we found conference rooms, swanky lounges, and a very large commercial kitchen. We also saw rooms that were likely used as workshops, print shops, libraries, and offices.
Ocean Falls is very much a town abandoned and frozen in time. There were personal belongings in many of the rooms. I had the sense the community was evacuated during the holiday season, because there were Christmas decorations everywhere.
The town almost looked staged for a photoshoot. Perfect, soft light leaked into the rooms, giving objects the appearance of being carefully placed, rather than hastily abandoned.
There were few signs that anything had been disturbed in the more than 25 years since the town was evacuated. I noticed graffiti in a few rooms, and one room had been swept for some reason. But that's it.
We used the dark, mouldy, cracked staircases to travel between floors. The floor was caving in many places. There was also asbestos everywhere, so we were extra careful with our footing and tried our best not to disturb the air.
As we walked around, we noticed a lot of vegetation and wildflowers growing amongst the rubble. I began picking flowers for a bouquet. There were probably 30 different types of wildflowers - a beautiful sign of life in stark contrast to the deserted town.
I was also struck by how colourful each room was. No two rooms were the same and this made for a vibrant colour palette.
And finally at the top, quite a breathtaking view of this strange place. The roof was extremely soft and we sensed it could cave-in, so we only walked out a few steps. The inlet you see in the photo below is the only way into Ocean Falls. Both the boat and ferry docks are still in service.
The last place I photographed was a 1950s-era residential home, It had been built with obvious pride and care. There was a vintage Electrolux vacuum resting on the floor next to a pile of rubble. To the left is a picture of the living room.
The shot to the right is of the staircase looking down from the second-floor. In the window, you can see a neighbouring house. There are many still standing.
I think it's interesting that companies create communities like this purely for commercial gain - they have such power for both creation and destruction. In Ocean Falls, a once booming industry town has been left-alone to die, with few people even aware of its existence today. It is my hope that these images capture the energy of what once was.
Thanks for reading!
Copyright (c) 2019 Landon Sarver Photography