Ghost Towns by Night Light

Ghost towns are palpable history, places where you can reach out and touch the past, where it’s so close it seems just around the corner. I know, because as a boy in the Southwest, I couldn’t leave the house without being warned (in vain) to stay out of the old mines that riddled the surrounding southern Arizona mountains.

Ghost towns are almost always associated with mines and mountains. Mines, because gold or silver or copper—or even uranium—discoveries drew waves of people to wash up every likely mountain gulch, sprouting towns as they went. Mountains, because that’s where erosion revealed the seams and deposits of minerals that the miners so eagerly sought.

But if the seams played out, the people often pulled up stakes for the next diggings, leaving their towns behind to be preserved in the dry Western air. Today, thousands visit ghost towns each year, to be fascinated and touched by such hard evidence of hard lives, the nostalgia of dreams that played out too. Among the aficionados of these cultural fossils is German photographer Berthold Steinhilber (Smithsonian, July 1999), who captures their eerie ambiance with light and camera. Starting at dusk, using very long exposures, he "paints" the scenes onto film with a powerful headlamp.

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