*Originally published March 1, 2022.
ideas53:59In a border area
Since the pandemic began, a niche genre of photography has surged in popularity. Dubbed “Liminal Spaces,” it consists largely of images of empty, spooky hallways, dark staircases, ancient arcades, and dead malls.
Online interest in this particular genre surged at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Google searches for the words “liminal,” “liminality,” and “liminal spaces” began to surge in March 2020, when the pandemic first hit North America.
The border space Reddit has around 400,000 members. That Border Space Bot The Twitter account regularly sends pictures to more than 800,000 followers. And Liminal Space photo compilations on Youtube have garnered millions of views.
Until recently, the word liminal was mostly limited to academia. Its roots are in Latin, from “līmen”, meaning “threshold” or “front door”. In anthropology it is used to describe the middle part of a ritual or rite of passage.
The 1964 article Betwixt and Between by British anthropologist Victor Turner describes the ritual’s liminal phase as a departure from the ordinary rules of time, space, and social hierarchy, in which participants can experiment with their identities.
The word has since denoted a time or place of transition, usually with eerie or surreal connotations.
The genre of frontier photography portrays an empty space of transition between one stage and the next, an in-between stage typically marked by uncertainty. They’re not comforting images—often they show a place that might have once been busy but is now empty.
Aiden Tait, a graduate student in American literature at Dalhousie University, describes it as “that feeling you get when you’re in a space between the not-anymore and the not-yet.”
A feeling of eeriness
There are no hard and fast rules for the perfect boundary space picture, but they typically show:
- A transitional space, such as a hallway or path.
- A feeling of eeriness or discomfort.
- A feeling of awe or wonder.
- An element of nostalgia, especially for the late 1980s or early 90s.
A frequently shared border space photo on Reddit is called the backrooms, a picture with yellow wallpaper and carpet, odd corners in every direction, and a dingy-looking electrical outlet on the wall. It is not clear where the entrance or exit to a hallway might be.
Nobody knows where The back rooms came from — it was posted on a website by an anonymous user. But it qualifies as a textbook borderline photo.
Some images of this type are not photographs at all, but are digital artworks using a computer-aided design program, like the rendered image below.
Become a fixture
One photographer who posts on r/liminalspace is Liam Kimmons, a 26-year-old film student living in Newmarket, Ontario. He goes on excursions at night in search of the perfect borderline moment.
“A lot of times when I was taking these pictures I treated it like this thing was way out there in the distance and you can barely see it. You can barely see it, but you know it’s there and you know the sense of what it’s supposed to be or how it relates to the rest of the world,” Kimmons said.
“Sometimes I would just sit motionless and let it be dark for a while before the light came on again. And I think there’s something about this idea of almost pretending you’re supposed to be in this room, pretending you’ve become a permanent fixture in the room.”
Kimmons says he appreciates that the community around the border area has been able to see the beauty in seemingly random things that are part of our everyday lives.
Sabina Magliocco, folklorist and professor of sociological anthropology at the University of British Columbia, says the pandemic has transformed society and that what we are going through together is very limited.
“It feels like an in-between. It feels like many of us are cut off from our normal day-to-day lives, cut off from the types of interactions we used to have,” Magliocco said.
She says interest in border space may reflect more than just the pandemic, but help us confront our own mortality.
“One of the tropes that we see is the trope of abandonment, the trope of something that’s desolate … something that was once filled with life and is now empty,” she said.
Guests in this episode:
Liam Kimmons is a film student and photographer based in Newmarket, Ontario.
Sabina Magliocco is a folklorist and professor of sociological anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Aiden Tait is a doctoral student in American literature at Dalhousie University.
Stuart Poynz is a youth media researcher and professor of communication at Simon Fraser University.
*This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder