Q&A: Allison V. Smith

Allison V. Smith photographed empty schools in Dallas, Texas. This photo was taken at H.S. Thompson Elementary School.

When the local school board in Dallas, Texas announced the closure of 11 schools, photographer Allison V. Smith set out to document them. In the process, she created these affecting portraits of the water fountains, chalkboards, and cafeterias left behind.

Tell us about how you got access to these empty schools in the first place. Why do you think they let you photograph them?
In 2008, a collector of mine called me and told me about a school that was completely empty, preparing to be re-modelled. He thought I might be interested in photographing it.
The next day I did. Hard hat and Hasselblad, I had the place to myself. Four years later, the Dallas Independent School District announced that they were going to shut down 11 schools by the end of the school year. I knew most of the buildings and knew I needed to document the empty schools. I contacted the News and Information Officer for DISD and pitched a proposal. He agreed that they needed to be documented and helped me get access to nine of the 11 schools.

What attracted you to these spaces?
I love empty spaces. Older schools especially, with their big windows allowing natural light to hit the black chalk boards and porcelain water fountains. They are so beautiful and haunting to me.

Once you were inside, what kinds of images were you looking for?
Most of the schools offered me the master key, so I walked freely from room to room with my Hasselblad and tripod. These images started in my head a while ago and so be able to continue shooting them thrilled me. I looked [for] light first, simplicity next.

Do you think a child who had attended these schools, or would have attended a school like this, would react differently to the photos than an adult or a parent, who is long past school age? Why?
I have had graduates from the Booker T. Washington School for the Arts tell me they love my photographs of their school. Perhaps for nostalgic reasons, as their beautiful old school has been completely modernized. Not sure what reaction the children whose schools were shut down would feel.

Finally, I’m sure everyone wants to know, do you know what will happen to these buildings?
There is a possibility that these schools might reopen someday. I do hope the buildings are used well. Particularly City Park Elementary School, a beautiful, small 100 year old school near downtown Dallas.

Photos courtesy Allison V. Smith.

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