Photographing Bodie

Bodie State Historic Park, California
Bodie State Historic Park, California

East of California’s Sierra Nevada, north of Mono Lake lies the abandoned mining town of Bodie, California. Bodie boomed after the discovery of gold ore in the 1870s, by 1920 the town was in a steep and never-reversed decline. In 1962 the area was designated a California state historic park and remains that today. Several aspects make Bodie a particularly interesting target for photographers intrigued by the Gold Rush era ghost towns.

First and foremost Bodie is maintained in a state of arrested decay, that is, the park attempts to maintain Bodie the way it was in 1962, repairing what’s necessary to maintain that state but no more so. Interiors of many of the town’s buildings buildings still contain original furniture and such. And because Bodie hasn’t been commercially developed, it’s easy to find many places to take unique, “timeless” photographs without anachronisms.

Photographing Bodie does come with a few logistical challenges, however. The first is that the park is generally not open at sunrise and sunset, and in general it’s impossible to get inside most of the buildings to photograph. Don’t let this deter you. With nearly 200 buildings in the town one could spend months working exteriors. But if you want to photograph more (and you will want to), there are solutions to both of these problems,   through organized photographic events.

Predawn Light, Bodie State Historic Park.
Predawn Light, Bodie State Historic Park. A 20-second exposure was required to pick up the faint reddish glow of oncoming sunrise.

The Friends of Bodie and Bodie SHP have each summer a Photographer’s Day event each month on the third Saturday, May through October. For $50 (at least in 2009) this will get you access to the  park from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. This can provide hours of quieter access to the park, which is great for working wider views of the town.

Photographing inside the buildings seems to require taking a photographic workshop that’s made arrangements with the park. The Friends of Bodie organize some of these workshops, you might also check out Jill Lachman, and the Fall Mono Basin Photography workshops given by Richard Knepp through the Mono Lake Committee (which some years includes time in Bodie).

A few quick tips for folks photographing Bodie for the first time:

First, Bodie is at over 8,000′ elevation. The dark sky there shows polarization artifacts easily. If you’re including the sky in your shot, leave off the polarizer (or use it very, very judiciously.)

Machinary, Bodie State Historic Park, California
Machinery, Bodie State Historic Park, California. Details often are better than wider shots at conveying a sense of age and timelessness.

Second, take advantage of windows. Reflections of the landscape and/or other buildings in a window can be very effective particularly in good light, views through multiple windows can also create pleasing compositions.

Third, don’t forget to look for details. It’s great to get wider shots of whole buildings or sections of town, but sometimes the smaller scenes (a table set for lunch covered in dust, a globe sitting in a window) can evoke feelings more powerfully than something on a larger scale.

Finally, if you’re trying to create a “timeless image of the past”, take a careful look at the scene you’re photographing. While anachronisms (building number posts, padlocks) are small and  infrequent, the fact that you don’t see much that isn’t “timeless” in Bodie can keep you from remembering to take a closer look.

Many of the ghost towns I’ve visited in the past have left me photographically uninspired. Usually either the ravages of time have left little trace, or commercialization has turned the ruins into an amusement park. Bodie is something different, an outdoor museum in the middle of nowhere, and a time machine into the past. Check it out!

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Joe: Yes, I agree; Bodie is fabulous. I did take a photo workshop there about 10 years ago so we did get access to the buildings.

    I hope that more photo enthusiasts discover this fascinating town.

    Cheers! Peter

  2. Really a nice ghost city.
    I believe that is really inspiring for picture.
    Please post some more images…

  3. Bodie has always been a source of wonder for me and for my shots. I have yet to be able to enter buildings and shoot. Perhaps 2010. I continue to learn more as I see other photographers work. Truly a fascinating area.

  4. I first visited Bodie when I was 9 and then again in ’78. We camped in a stand of aspin on the left when you first see the valley. In those days we only encountered three people all day long. A couple and the ranger. It was so nice and quiet. Beautifully aging in the crisp air. We also toured the outside of the mine but were warned not to go in. What an adventure I’ll never forget.

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