Columbia photographer Kent Durk finds beauty in abandoned houses

Sunday, June 3, 2012 | 5:36 p.m. CDT; updated 8:08 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 24, 2012
Kent Durk and his wife, Cindy Durk, answer questions about his artwork Sunday during Art in the Park at Stephens Lake Park. Durk photographs old houses and uses high dynamic range imaging to edit his photos. This technique results in photos full of color and texture with a painterly quality.

COLUMBIA — The Halloween-esque font on the banner and the rubber spider that adorned it set the Old Creepy House Explorers Club apart from the other 100 vendors at this year's Art in the Park.

And so did its art.


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Under the scariest tent at Stephens Lake Park hung two dozen photographs that explained the name of photographer Kent Durk's club.

Durk said he's been an artist his whole life. He began drawing as a child, studied photography at Columbia College and worked as an art director for 25 years at Missouri Book Services.

In 2006, he started his hobby of photographing abandoned houses. 

Early on, he went by himself, devoting his Saturday mornings to visiting vacant homes. Not knowing where he was going, he would leave Columbia at 8 o'clock, drive until he came to a fork in the road, decide where to go from there and stop when he found an uninhabited dwelling suitable for photography.

"It's about getting out, exploring and having fun," he said. "If it ain't gonna be fun, I ain't gonna do it."

Soon, though, he decided traveling to run-down houses was too dangerous to do alone.

"My imagination did me in every time. I'd just get too scared," he said.

So he recruited the help of his wife, Cindy Durk, and longtime friend Laurie Shelhart to accompany him on his many trips, which are usually confined to a 100-mile radius of Columbia.

Cindy Durk and Shelhart often take detailed shots of the inside of the house, Kent Durk said, focusing on racks of old shoes left behind in closets or old telephones once used by the long-gone former residents.

Kent Durk, though, tends to focus on the big picture. He photographs both the outside and the inside of the houses from many different angles, which allows him to create a panoramic image of the homes. He posts these panoramas on his website so the viewer can feel as if he or she is there, looking at the house.

But his final product doesn't look like a typical photograph. Instead, Kent Durk uses a technique called high dynamic range imaging to edit his photos. This technique takes light information from multiple pictures and compresses it into one photo, creating a painting-like image.

Although Cindy Durk and Shelhart now shoot photos with Kent Durk every two to three weeks, Kent Durk said his partners can't always keep away the fear that comes with exploring deserted houses.

"One time, a man in an old pickup truck with a gun rack pulled up to one of the houses I was shooting and started yelling, 'What're you doing here?'" Kent Durk said. "That's what's scariest — the locals.  Sometimes they don't understand the photography."

But these sorts of events don't keep him from doing what he loves: exploring the histories of the homes he photographs.

Durk said his favorite home to photograph was an old farmhouse southeast of Columbia, built in 1902. Although the house was abandoned, a family member of the original residents lived in a shack behind it. The 80-year-old man would trek through the garbage and debris of the farmhouse to strip wood from its walls to use as firewood to cook his meals.

When the man died, he left one-third of the farmhouse and its land to a friend from a neighboring town who used to lay metal across the floor of the house so that the shack-dweller could more easily walk on top of the remains.

"This all just started with my desire to have a hobby," Durk said. "Photography is another way to express yourself.  A camera is an extension of your mind."

"It's a scratch I've gotta itch."

Supervising editor is Dan Burley.

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