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 MISSOURI —
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.
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."
It was 8:15 on a Saturday morning when Kent Durk packed his Hyundai trunk full of equipment, grabbed his 20-ounce Red Bull and Camel Lights, hollered goodbye to his son and took off like a storm chaser into the wind.
But in place of tornadoes were abandoned houses. “All right,” Durk said. “Let’s go see what we find today.”With nothing more than partial directions from a Glasgow cafe waitress and a road map, the “Old Creepy House Explorers Club” — the adventurous team that includes Durk, his wife, Cindy Durk, and longtime friend Laurie Shelhart — sets off on another getaway with hopes of finding an abandoned house. After 28 years as creative director for a Columbia business, a job he still holds, Durk, 52, has finally been setting aside Saturdays to do something for himself: He calls it 360icon. “With 360icon, it’s my own thing,” he said.
Here is his process: Treating each decaying house as a movie, Durk takes his fisheye lens into as many rooms, or scenes as he calls them, as possible without falling through the floorboards. After bracketing multiple exposures for seven points of view in each room, he heads on to the next scene. Finishing his movie, Durk uses a wide zoom lens to shoot the exterior of the house. Tedious editing and manipulation on his computer back home later in the night are what produce the sublime 50-by-90-inch spherical panorama, which depict a 360-by-180-degree view of the house. To create that final print, Durk goes through about 2,000 images and selects his favorite shots and exposures and stitches 100 of them together to make the panorama.
Durk was off and running on his own adventures and eventually made abandoned houses his theme; after doing some shots of downtown, a car and a big tree, he had become tired of having to come up with a “what’s next.” Then one afternoon, he found an old house. “It’s almost like the house found him,” Cindy Durk said. Durk was intrigued by everything about it. “Something about the way everything goes with the house: the past, the way that it is now, the way that it is going to be, the way that it is getting pulled back into the earth,” he said. “After a while you’d think, ‘Oh, it’s just another empty room,’ but each one of these houses has its own unique characteristics. And stories. And crap lying around that make it interesting.”
Art isn’t a new development in Durk’s life. He’s been into drawing since he was a child and took photography classes in college. “Even when he was at Columbia College, his teacher would use Kent’s photos to show the class what he was looking for,” Cindy Durk said. “He’s always had an eye for stuff like that, and he’s actually had some photographs at the Chicago Art Institute.” Edward Collings, a professor in the art department at Columbia College, was surprised at the mention of Durk’s name. “My gosh, that was 1,000 years ago,” Collings said. But after joking that every 30 years his memory bank goes blank, he said he remembered Durk well and recalled him as being into more advanced techniques. “He was always inquisitive,” Collings said, “and was quite interested in the zone technique of Ansel Adams because of the range of tonality.” Durk recalled: “I remember an art teacher of mine told me in 1969, my freshman year in high school, that I could do art for a living. It made me wonder ‘why do I have this gift? Why is this in me?’ That’s what I’m doing now, just finding out what that’s all about.”
Although the money isn’t there, Durk plugs away at it as if it’s his day job. Some Saturdays he’s up and off at 5:30 a.m. just to catch the right light. His wife thinks it’s nice for him to have something he’s so passionate about, even if he doesn’t get paid for it. “I do it for the fun of it,” Durk said, “and I know two other girls who just live for the weekend now.” “The girls,” as Durk calls his wife and Shelhart, began joining him after just a few weeks of his solo treks, after he kept going on about how cool it was and that they should come along. “No offense, Kent,” Shelhart told him that Saturday in Glasgow, “but I think you wanted us to come along so you wouldn’t get scared.” While the women laughed, Durk acknowledged it was true. “Poor Kent,” Shelhart said. “We’re always making fun of him — especially his Hallsville accent.” As much as they tease him for his accent, they’re glad he has it; it seems to make the few farmers and landowners they encounter more comfortable with him taking pictures. “Once they know that you’re there because you’re interested, they’re stoked that ‘big city folks’ are there to take pictures of their town,” Cindy Durk said. “They’ll always open up and just show you around,” Durk said, “like there’s nothing else they have to do.” Getting out of the house each week to do what he’s passionate about — not to mention dodging his “honey-do” list — isn’t the only thing about 360icon that Durk loves. It’s about showing that in the end it all goes back into the ground; a Candyland game in the middle of a room was once a little girl’s prized possession, and now it’s disintegrating. “Everything in this world is like that,” Durk said. “You, me, clothes. It’s all temporary. All else passes. Art alone endures, and art is what we’re doing here.”
Spend five minutes with Kent Durk, and you begin to wonder whether the guy is a genius or simply has had too much caffeine. Chances are both are true. Durk is that skinny, bespectacled guy in baggy jeans and Converse tennis shoes who could disarm a gorilla with his bumbling charm. He’s also intense and a bit reckless, even without coffee. Once he gets an idea, Durk won’t stop. He’s the fellow who starts a project at 5 a.m. and looks up from his work at midnight, oblivious to the day gone by. Marlboro Lights are his sustenance; one drag and the answer might come, setting in motion a swirl of mental activity that could boggle the brightest of minds.
Durk is a head case, a sort of Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz" whose unpretentious appeal lays open the world and allows him to work his magic. "Lots of people call him a genius," his wife, Cindy Durk, said. "Kent is very driven." If you try to keep up, you’ll probably get lost.So don’t be surprised if you don’t understand how the 52-year-old special projects director for MBS Textbook Exchange Inc. produces his jaw-dropping spherical panoramas of abandoned places. Most folks who visit his Web site ask the same thing: How does he do it? Durk could spend hours explaining how he takes multiple exposures of various points of view and blends them to create high-dynamic-range panoramas. He has a trunk full of photography equipment he uses to mount his camera and turn it, capturing an entire room.Durk said he’s the only guy in the world doing what he does. Suffice it to say the process is complicated. But once you see the results - stunning images of dying homes that appear so real you can almost smell the decay - you don’t care how he makes them. You want to see more.
So click on 360icon.com and go for a ride through rural Missouri. Visit the Edgewood farm, an abandoned prison, Ravenswood and a pre-Civil War home. Not only will you see panoramas of each location, but there are also still photographs taken by Durk’s wife, Cindy, and friend Laurie Shellhart. Suffice it to say the process is complicated. But once you see the results - stunning images of dying homes that appear so real you can almost smell the decay - you don’t care how he makes them. You want to see more. So click on 360icon.com and go for a ride through rural Missouri. Visit the Edgewood farm, an abandoned prison, Ravenswood and a pre-Civil War home. Not only will you see panoramas of each location, but there are also still photographs taken by Durk’s wife, Cindy, and friend Laurie Shellhart.The Columbia trio call themselves the "Old Creepy House Explorers Club." Their adventures begin early Saturday mornings with coffee and vague directions. Sometimes they just pile in the car and drive until they find an old building that sparks their interest. If they can get permission to shoot, they do. But if they can’t, they might shoot anyway and post the images under a pseudo-name such as "haunted house" or "holiday house." They were caught twice. One owner met Durk and found out what they were doing, then gave the group permission to snoop and shoot. Only one property owner said, "No." "Most people get as excited as we do once they find out what we’re doing," Durk said.Durk takes as many as 4,000 photographs at any given location while Cindy Durk and Shellhart spread out and take up to 800 pictures between them using digital cameras.
When they’re done, Durk downloads the images into his computer and begins editing, sometimes well into the night. The next morning, he’s up again, putting the final touches on the project. He generally posts the panoramas and photographs on his Web site within 20 hours.Bob Pugh, CEO of MBS Textbook Exchange, described Durk as an "incredible talent. He is a master of technology as well as an artist. "He is a kind of renaissance man and very passionate," he continued. "Once Kent gets into something, he becomes immersed." Despite Durk’s intensity, Pugh said he’s an irresistible character. "You have to like him, he’s so genuine." Durk has online fans as far away as Tokyo, Italy and Spain waiting eagerly to see his newest images. "Whoa. Breathtaking," wrote an admirer from San Francisco. "I’ve never seen anything like what you’re doing here. Are you just one person or a team?"Durk’s adventures into the countryside began more than a year ago as solitary escapes from work and a chance to rejuvenate his art of photography. Since he was a boy growing up in Hallsville, Durk has focused on little else but art. "That’s all I wanted to do was draw and paint," Durk recalled. "I’m very visual. Really, I barely did anything else. No kidding, I barely passed English.
"After high school, Durk attended a technical school in St. Louis and took courses at Columbia College, but he never received a degree. Still, there were flashes of brilliance that did not go unnoticed. About 20 years ago, he was shooting nude models in abandoned houses and making black-and-white prints. Some were on display at the Chicago Art Institute. Durk missed that kind of independent work. Determined to return to his roots, he sold his RV, bought a bunch of top-of-the-line photography equipment and struck out for the country. After taking a series of still photographs, he began some research and came across the idea of panoramic photography."I thought, ‘Wow! I want to do that,’ " Durk said. Armed with "the best stuff in the world to do it," Durk again set out for rural Missouri. This time, he brought his wife - because he was sort of lonely and the abandoned houses he was shooting were sort of scary - but she stayed in the car, usually reading a book. Sometimes, Cindy Durk invited Shellhart to join her. One day Durk handed each of the women a digital camera and told them to start shooting. Before long, they were hooked and as eager as Durk to tell stories with their pictures. Eventually, the group gave itself a name.For Shellhart, a nurse at Columbia Regional Hospital, the weekend treks are a sanctuary. "This has become my happy place," she said. Photography is nothing new for Cindy Durk, who was taking pictures years ago when she met her husband.
By the way, she asked Durk out first. Today, the couple has two sons, 23 and 18. "When I was young, I wanted to take photographs for National Geographic," said Cindy Durk, who owns and manages a deli at the University of Missouri’s veterinary college.Kent Durk was in his 20s when he bought his first camera - a Nikon Nikkormat - from a little shop on Ninth Street called Fox Photo. The storefront is now occupied by Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream. Durk soon began shooting photographs under the tutelage of the late Roger Berg, who died last year from cancer. Back then, Berg was co-owner of Columbia Photo, where Durk could often be found ogling equipment and asking questions. Berg knew Durk was on the right path with his latest venture into panoramas. "He was going to market it for me," Durk said.For now, Durk couldn’t be happier with his forays. The only thing that could make it better would be a chance to show his photos in a gallery. Publishing a book of his work would be nice, too.Still, Durk’s biggest battle might be keeping a balance in his life. "Sometimes, I get so involved in this, I forget to stop and look around and enjoy it," he said. "But you know," Durk added under his breath, "to do this right, I should be here at sunup and back again at sundown. That’s the perfect light."
Specialized in taking VRs of several abandoned houses, 360Icon is the right address to look for to get scared on a stormy Halloween night.
When I first saw 360icon's images, I thought that - on Halloween night - they could have scared the hell out of anybody. Moreover, once one is told the history behind the scenes. Shot with state to the art's techniques, and great passion, the VR presented within the website, offer an incredible tour of abandoned houses, abandoned prisons, powerplants and cemeteries. Are you ready to enter these creepy gates?
How do you create those panoramic images? Which are the involved techniques? Which equipment do you use?
We go out every Saturday. We meet at our house at 07.30 AM and head out...Sometimes we neither know where and we keep driving and get lost, until we find the ring one. If we can ask the permission to shot, we do ask, otherwise we just jump the fence and go for it. We have been caught twice and once the owners find out what we are doing, they take interest in our task and show and tell us info we would otherwise have known nothing about. We shoot on a average 2000- 4000+ images on one of our outings.
Everything is shot in Raw, except for the galley photos. Once we get back to the lab, I download the images from the Epson p-3000 to my apple hard drive, load them into adobe lightroom and save them off as 16bit tiffs reduced 65%. Then I write down all the individual panorama frame sequence numbers...from that list I create 16 bit tonemapped images with photomatix and from there I open the tonemapped images up in photoshop and retouch out dust specks and make sure they all are the same size. In the next step, I stitch 5000x2500 16bit tif, then I color correct that rendered image in adobe lightroom and save it in a 8 bit tiff format. After, I create the cube faces uncompressed with cubic converter, add the tripod cap in photoshop to the bottom image, then run them back thru cubic convertor where it gets compressed and sized for the final movie. The movie is run through Pleinpot to create the full screen coding for the internet. I use dreamwever to edit the code for my web interface and CSS. This takes me 20 hours to process and updates on the web site are posted on Sundays or Mondays.Actually, we believe that we are original in what we are creating! We have not found anyone else on the net who is creating the same type of content, using HDRi and spherical panoramas. The response has been very positive and we are thankful for all the wonderful feedbacks!!
Can you tell us more about your background and passions ?
I have been involved in art & photography for the past 36 years. In my early years, I painted and did a lot of drawings with ink and even made my own prints in a darkroom, using homemade developers. I used to shot black and white, using the zone system. Since I was young all I ever wanted to do is learn about art and photographic techniques and create images. Even 20 years ago I was shooting nude models in abandoned houses and making B&W prints, some of which were on display at the Chicago Art Institute. My current passion is 360icon, going out on weekends, covering new places to photograph and visit the small towns along the countryside, meanwhile meeting some of the townsfolk.When and how did you start panoramic photography, creating immersive visual art?
In the early 90's I purchased Apple Quicktime VR Authoring Studio 1.0- That software allowed me to create small cylindrical panoramas. Apple did not continue developing that program, so my VR movie making days slowly faded.
Then, about one year ago, I was browsing the internet and discovered what QTVR had evolved into - fullscreen spherical. Wow!
I did some research and bought and tried several different panoheads and software programs, to decide which ones could have been the best equipment to create the type of imagery that I needed to achieve. Please describe the concept creation of the web site and the involved people ?
As soon as I received my equipment and software - I started shooting anything that came to mind - trees, old cars, real estate...And then, one day, I shot a really old house from 1890. After processing the images, I was hooked! Finally I knew what I wanted to photograph as my subject matter.
In the early days I went by myself to these abandoned houses and I would hear allot of strange noises, often thinking that I had watched too many scary movies. Moreover, most of these places are really dangerous.
Anyhow, I convinced my wife and my girlfriend to accompany me, and I got a couple of extra digital cameras, so that I could give a few lessons. In a short while, I got them started on shooting the detail images for the photo galleries while I shot the panoramas - it was not long until, they were hooked either.
Can you tell us more about the web site content and features ?
The web site now has over 600 panoramas online all in HDRi. Because of the really dark environments I found that it was important to capture as much details in the scene than a conventional 7 shot panoramas would capture. That's where the HDRi came in, to play some exposures range from 30 seconds to 1/8000 @ f22. This range allows me to capture great shadows to highlight range in these dark places; images that the human eye cannot see. We plan on continuing for several years, with an additional 1000 panos to be added in 2008. The more we go out on weekends the more places we discover. We know of 12 more places to shot but can only shoot 2-3 houses on a Saturday. In the future we plan on re- visiting some of our favorite locations to photograph them again, in order to show the advanced stages of a decay progresses. There are 2 sections to our web site - Panoramas and Exploration - the pano side is made of single panoramas from each house, with navigation between each scene. The exploration side is made of virtual tours with links between the movies thru hotspots. As things develop, we would like to do some low level aerial panoramas of the locations as well and someday some will me made with flash as well as quicktime.Do you face peculiar conditions when shooting?
Well, usually the places are freezing. Moreover, we often run into snakes, chiggers and spiders. Light is often really low.Your panoramas could be very interesting for the gaming and cinema industry.