Urban Explorer Photographs Chicago’s Abandoned Sites and Buildings

Photographer and urban explorer Rick Drew. (Rick Drew)

Freelance photographer Rick Drew has been delving into abandoned buildings in and around the Chicago area for the past decade. He's got a knack for urban exploration, known as "urbex" for short, which involves venturing into abandoned structures for the purposes of photography or in some cases, sheer curiosity. 

But the hobby comes with a host of hassles and is considered by some as simple trespassing. "Chicago Tonight" asked Drew, who leads the group Chicagoland Urbex Photography, about his eccentric – and sometimes dangerous – pastime.

An abandoned synagogue in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. (Rick Drew)

Chicago Tonight: When did you first get interested in urban exploration?

Rick Drew: Probably about 30 years ago. And then I took a break for a while and started doing more scuba diving, but then I got big into shipwreck diving, which is pretty much the same thing, but underwater.

CT: What compels you to explore abandoned buildings?

RD: The first time I go somewhere, it’s usually just [to] explore. To see something that’s new and different to me. To find out the mystery behind it, like why it went out of business or what happened to it, if it’s a building or factory. And then when I go back, it’s usually for the photos.

An abandoned chicken feed factory located in Chicago. (Rick Drew)

CT: What's been your scariest moment so far while exploring?

RD: Probably at the old chicken feed factory that got torn down a couple years ago. I was standing on a floor about 10 stories up, at the top of the building. The group I was with went through a small cubby hole in the ceiling. They were like 90 pounds dripping wet. There was no way I could fit through it. So, I was standing around waiting and the floor I was standing on dropped about six inches. I looked down and it turns out the floor originally had bricks, a concrete skim coat and then wood on top of it. Over the years, the bricks had fallen away and the wood was stolen or burned, so I was basically standing on the skim coat with the metal mesh in there. That was the last time I went back into that building. I looked down, slowly backed out and left.

CT: What's one of the most interesting things you’ve found at an abandoned site?

RD: There’ve been so many. At Joliet prison, they X-ray the mail. All the X-ray machines were still there. They were vandalized and turned upside down, but they were still there. I don’t know if there was anything inside of them still, but it’s just amazing that some of these things get left behind.

The interior of a Joliet prison. (Rick Drew)

CT: Is the prison in Joliet still standing?

RD: Yeah. The thing is if you’re on the outside walking around, it’s no problem. If the cops see you inside the fence, they’ll tell you to leave, but they won’t arrest you. But if you’re inside the jail, and the cops know it, that’s not their area of authority, so what they’ll do is call Statesville Penitentiary because it’s part of the prison system. And Statesville will send over a van full of guards. [Laughs]

That happened to a friend of mine. There was about 10 of us in there, doing pictures and walking around and I had to be out of there by one o’clock because I was meeting a group somewhere else in the area, so I left and then these guys just don’t show up. I bumped into them around three o’clock and they’re pale. Two of them were kind of half in shock and a couple of them were laughing.

I guess they sent out six of their biggest, meanest guards with shotguns. These guys came around the corner and they had six guards with shotguns in their faces, screaming at them, you know, "Get on the ground! Get on the ground!" then they say, "Delete your camera cards," which had to be pretty funny. One of the girls in the group, she was still down the hall, so she took out her card, hid it in her bra, put a blank card in the camera and formatted the blank card.

I went back there about four hours later and [the guards] were still there. The van was still outside and they were still patrolling around, because the place is so big that you can hide. They gave them a real good scare. And of course, [the urban explorers] went home and un-deleted them all.

Drew said urban explorers are hesitant to give precise location details of sites, partially because "scrappers" often strip locations of scrap metal. (Rick Drew)

CT: Have you been back there since then?

RD: I’ve been back there once since then. The problem is, like anywhere, if the cops see you one time and they warn you, and they see you again, the second time, it’s not going to be a warning, then you’ll get in trouble.

CT: Have you ever been arrested?

RD: I’ve never been arrested, but I’ve been caught a few times. As long as you’re polite and cool and you’re not an idiot towards the cops, they usually let you go. But I’ve had friends that have been busted and got in serious trouble.

CT: What's the urban exploration scene like in Chicago?

RD: Different groups do different things. Some friends of mine like doing "draining." They go into drain pipes and sewers. They’ll Instagram photos of them on a raft floating down a river of raw sewage. They’re nuts. The same guys will break into the roofs of skyscrapers and climb construction cranes – all that kinds of stuff. A couple of them actually got married in a storm drain underground. They’re really into it. So, that’s one style.

The exterior of Damen Silos, one of Chicago's most well-known abandoned sites. (Rick Drew)

Another friend of mine goes solo but he knows the people who run one of the biggest demolition companies in the city, so he gets some phenomenal pictures of stuff being demolished, from behind the scenes. Like when they were tearing down Evergreen Plaza, he was up next to the bulldozer while they were tearing it down. So he specializes in doing demolition photos, which is pretty cool.

CT: What do you think is the most iconic or impressive abandoned site in Chicago?

RD: Probably Damen Silos. Everyone sees it, it’s been in so many movies.

Watch a video of Rick Drew exploring Chicago's abandoned Damen Silos:

Video: Evan Garcia for “Chicago Tonight”

CT: What do you tell people before they go urban exploring?

RD: If you’re going into a place for the first time, always try to find someone who’s been there before so they can act as a guide for you. This way you know what to watch out for: if there are holes in the floor or bad walls or bad floors or areas of the roof to avoid, that kind of thing. Check the area out. There have been some areas in Chicago that have tons of abandoned buildings, but they’re in really, really bad neighborhoods. It’s just not worth the risk.

The main thing is always be careful. I always say go with three people because if someone gets hurt, someone can stay with them and then someone else can go and get help. Depending where you’re at, cell phones might not work. Plus, depending on where you are, you may have to carry the person out.

Drew often organizes photo shoots with models at abandoned sites. He obtained permission, and paid a fee, to stage photographs at this shuttered psychiatric hospital near Peoria, Illinois. (Rick Drew)

CT:  Some of your photos combine cosplay with urban exploration. Tell us a little about that.

RD: I’m the photo head for Anime Midwest, which is a big anime convention they have in Rosemont. I’ve been into watching anime and all that stuff since I was a kid, like before it was popular. I’ll look at a place and say, "Man, this would be a great background for whichever anime character." I’ve had friends say, "Hey, where can I do a good zombie shoot locally?" And I’ll say Steelworkers Park, cause they have tunnels, man-made caves, rubbles, walls, all kinds of cool stuff. The best backdrop you can have is a real, crumbling building.

A model dressed in cosplay as the superhero Hellboy. (Rick Drew)

CT: Tell us about some of the visual effects you use in your photography.

RD: We’ll spin steel wool to get cool background effects and sparks, but I’ve seen people start fires doing that.

You take steel wool and basically a whisk and chain or rope. You put the steel wool in the whisk on the end of the rope and just spin it and the steel wool burns at like 3,000 degrees. You hit it with a lighter or nine-volt battery and it starts burning. When you spin it, it feeds it oxygen, so it burns hot and fast. And these sparks fly and land on everything. 

Drew using a "spinning wool" visual effects technique. (Rick Drew)

You see these idiots doing steel wool spinning in places where they have no business doing it. I’ve seen people start fires doing that. I’ve seen this guy spinning steel wool at the Bean downtown. It’s so stupid. He’s bouncing 3,000-degree sparks off the Bean. That’s a bad idea. One of the guys in my crew polished the Bean when they put it there. He said, "Yeah, they pit the crap out of that thing when they spin steel wool." It’s stainless steel. If you have a 3,000-degree spark landing on it, it’s going to pit it. One spark hit my friend’s lens and it burned a quarter-inch into the glass on his lens.

If you notice all the shots where I’m doing it, I’m outdoors or there’s water everywhere. There’s no wood. I’ll spin steel wool in a lot of places, but we always spend five or 10 minutes walking around to make sure that there’s nothing that’s gonna burn. And even then, we were at a place that was soaking wet and we were standing in six inches of water and there was a couch cushion floating in the water. The couch cushion caught on fire! It was easy to put out because it was in water.

CT: You also use light painting, a technique where photographs are taken at long exposures. How do you use that during your explorations?

RD: That’s probably my favorite thing. There’s two different ways we do it. One is we use light painting just to light up your scene. If you have a nice, big dark room in an abandoned building and try to use a flash to light it up, you’re going to get really, really harsh shadows. So with practice, you can use a nice powerful flashlight and move it around quite a bit and illuminate your entire room and there are zero shadows. It looks like you shot it in the daylight.

Drew illuminated the dark basement of Chicago's Damen Silos using light painting. (Rick Drew)

The other way is doing it for effects where you bring colored lights and LEDs and all kinds of stuff and you can do patterns and shapes and orbs and all kinds of cool things. One of my favorite tools is this thing called a pixel stick, which is basically a 200-pixel wide display and it’s one roll of LEDs that are programmable. You can show any image on this thing. That’s really cool. So you can do logos, fire, monsters. We’ve done all kinds of cool stuff with it. So you just wipe it in front of the camera and if you do a 10-second exposure, you’ll actually draw an image in the air. You can get a cool fire effect without actually having fire.

I’m not exaggerating at all, you can ask my girlfriend: I’ve probably got 300 flashlights. I have a lot of them modified with different colored filters and extensions and different things for getting different shapes and effects. We’ll combine light painting with steel wool and get some really cool effects.

A design created by using light painting tools. (Rick Drew)

CT: How do you find new sites to explore?

RD: Google Maps. You put it on satellite view and just follow old railroad tracks. It takes time, but you just follow tracks and you’ll find them. Or I’ll go online doing photo searches looking for different keywords. Of course, "abandoned," and that kind of thing and just try to find pictures that people have posted. A lot of the times, when they post a picture, they’ll forget to remove the GPS data. [Laughs] I’ve found a few that way.

Sometimes word of mouth, but a lot of explorers don’t like sharing because if you post it and give your location away, within a week, scrappers will be there and clean it out.

I have a buddy that will walk his dog and he’ll let his dog off the leash and chase after it on purpose, because the dog is pretty well-trained, just to get into places. He’ll go, "I’m just getting my dog now, I’ll be right out!"

It’s risk and reward. It depends on how much you want to risk. At this stage in the game, I’m not gonna risk too much. I have friends that are young and insane and don’t care.

Union Station in Gary, Indiana. Drew said Gary is a frequent destination for urban explorers due to the presence of several abandoned sites in the city. (Rick Drew)

CT: What are people’s reactions when they see your photos?

RD: My girlfriend thinks I’m nuts. [Laughs] She’s happy that I haven’t been out much this year. And the general question is, "Why? What do you see in it?" People just don’t get it at all. They’ll be like, "Why would you bother doing that? What’s the attraction in that?"

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia


Sign up for our morning newsletter to get all of our stories delivered to your mailbox each weekday.


More "Chicago Tonight" Stories

Fishing on the Chicago River

Feb. 25: The Chicago River is far from America's cleanest waterway. But a few anglers are trying their luck as its ecosystem improves. Captain Tim Frey took us for a winter fishing trip on the river.


Exploring a Tent City Along the Chicago River

Feb. 9: After reading about people living in tents on a large plot of abandoned property along the Chicago River, I grabbed my camera and set out for the South Loop to investigate.


Cruise the Chicago River from the Comfort of Your Home

Jan. 26: The Chicago River is now visible via Google Street View. A small team spent nearly 10 hours documenting the waterway with a 360-degree camera in October. Here's what it looks like.


Trio of Photographers Flirt with the Law to Capture Beauty of Beastly Buildings

July 9, 2014: Three local friends routinely visit abandoned industrial sites in the Midwest, enter the buildings, and take only photos. They don’t carry crowbars or anything that might attract the attention of the police.