Wichita’s defunct amusement park Joyland has landed on the cover of a new book of photographs about abandoned theme parks.
The book, “Bizarro: The World’s Most Hauntingly Beautiful Abandoned Theme Parks,” is self-published by the photographer who goes by the name Seph Lawless.
Lawless has become well-known for photographing abandoned buildings, such as closed malls and the houses where people were murdered, to document what he describes as the hidden underbelly of abandoned parts of America. The latest focus of his camera was abandoned amusement parks.
The photographs have three main elements, according to Lawless: They’re beautiful, they’re creepy and they provoke discussion about the political landscape that gave rise to these abandoned spaces. In order to capture the strange or horrible mood of these spaces, he tries to photograph them just before a storm, so sometimes he has to return several times.
Lawless returned to Joyland, in south Wichita, a second time this spring. But his window to take photos was tight. He was traveling from the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, and entering Kansas was like nothing he’d experienced before.
“It was dark and there was a horrible thunderstorm,” Lawless said. “All I see is lightning going around, and I’m like, where am I? There is no hotel, there is nowhere to pull over. If there is a tornado, I can’t even see it. It was truly a frightening journey just to get into Kansas.”
He finally made it to a hotel but the next morning, when he pulled the curtains, there were several fake plastic swans outside his window, which he thought was “so creepy and out of place.”
At Joyland, he had started to take photos when another storm “came in out of nowhere,” so he had to run back a mile to his car, covering his camera with a sweatshirt to prevent it from getting drenched. But he had his shot.
There was only one other photo he was considering for the book cover, which was a picture of some decrepit dinosaurs in a theme park in Germany. But there was something entrancing about the haunting eyes on the building he photographed at Joyland, the Whacky Shack, which he lightened in post-production, and it gave rise to the book’s theme, “Bizarro.”
“They are these googly eyes going in different directions, kind of crazy, kind of bizarro,” Lawless said. “It fit the name of the book as well. Bizarro sounds like an amusement park ride.”
His images have already been getting attention on social media, where he earned his fame as an early adopter, and his work appeared next to photos by Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. Social media is a space he blames for helping cause the separation he sees among Americans today, and the abandoned spaces they ignore. So he tries to use social media subversively.
He adds an element of ugly horror next to all the titillation. It’s also a necessary space, he says, for a photographer like him to reach an audience.
But he sometimes gets into trouble there as well. All the time he has been spending in abandoned, depressing spaces the past few years was taking a toll on him.
“I was so psychologically drained I became very angry at my country, I became bitter,” Lawless said. “I said something to the effect of, I’m not proud to be an American. I’m here to show how (messed) up my country really is.”
He backpedaled and explained that he loves his country but isn’t always proud of what it does. He’s also angered librarians on social media for claiming that most Americans don’t read a book after college. He even got a divided response for a post about how beautiful Kansas is during his trip here.
“Whoever said there was nothing in Kansas wasn’t looking hard enough,” Lawless said about Kansas’ skies. “People just say there is nothing there, and it’s flat, it’s such a stereotype, it’s such a beautiful place.”
The book retails for $99 for the paperback, $149 for the hardback, or you can splurge for the large-print, limited-edition version at $249.
These prices are in part a reflection of the high cost of nice, independently produced photography books, he said, but also a reflection of the divided incomes in America. He is also offering an e-book version that costs $10. The book is available on his website at www.sephlawless-shop.com.