Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

'Liminal space' photography captures the eerieness and isolation of pandemic life

Early in the pandemic, an online community of photographers, artists and editors started creating and sharing pictures of what they described as “liminal spaces”: empty, dark hallways, old arcades and decrepit stairways, which echoed a sense of timelessness and eeriness that resonated in today's world.
(Bryan Wan/Shutterstock)

*Originally published on March 1, 2022.

Since the start of the pandemic, a very niche genre of photography has grown in popularity. Called "liminal spaces," it's largely made up of images of empty, eerie hallways, dark stairways, old arcades and dead malls. 

Online interest in this specific genre surged early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Google searches for the words "liminal," "liminality" and "liminal spaces" began climbing in March of 2020, when the pandemic first hit North America.

The liminal space Reddit has roughly 400,000 members. The Liminal Space Bot Twitter account sends regular images to more than 800,000 followers. And liminal space photo compilations on Youtube have racked up millions of views. 

Until recently, the word liminal was mostly confined to academia. Its roots are in Latin, from "līmen," meaning "threshold" or "doorstep." In anthropology, it's used to describe the middle part of a ritual or rite of passage.

British anthropologist Victor Turner's 1964 paper Betwixt and Between describes the liminal phase of ritual as a departure from the ordinary rules of time, space and social hierarchy, where participants can experiment with their identity.

The word has gone on to mean a time or place of transition, usually with eerie or surreal connotations.

The genre of liminal photography portrays an empty transition place between one stage and the next, an in-between period that is typically marked by uncertainty. They aren't comforting images — often they depict a place that might have been busy once, but now is empty.

Aiden Tait, a PhD student in American literature at Dalhousie University, describes it as "the feeling you get when you're in a space between the no longer and the not yet."

A sense of eeriness

There aren't hard and fast rules for the perfect liminal space image, but they typically depict:

  • A transition space, like a hallway or pathway.
  • A sense of eeriness or uneasiness.
  • A feeling of awe or wonder.
  • An element of nostalgia, particularly for the late 1980s or early '90s.


One frequently shared liminal space photo on Reddit is called The Backrooms, an image with yellow wallpaper and carpet, odd corners in all directions and a dingy-looking outlet on the wall. It is not clear where the entrance or exit to a hallway may be.

(Reddit)

Nobody knows where The Backrooms came from — it was posted on a website by an anonymous user. But it is considered a textbook liminal space photograph.

Some images in this vein aren't photographs at all, but digital artworks that use a computer-aided design program, like the rendered image below.

(Nadifal/Shutterstock)

Becoming a fixture

One photographer who posts to r/liminalspace is Liam Kimmons, a 26-year-old film student who lives in Newmarket, Ont. He takes trips out at night, hunting for a perfect liminal moment. 

"A lot of times when I was taking these images, I was treating it like there was this thing way out in the distance, and you can barely see it. You can barely make it out, but you know it's there, and you know the impression of what it was supposed to be or how it related to the rest of the world," Kimmons said.

(Submitted by Liam Kimmons )

"Sometimes, I would just sit there without any movement, allowing it to be dark for a bit until the light came back on. And I think there's something about that idea of almost pretending as if you are meant to be in that space, pretending as if you have become a fixture in the space."

Kimmons says he appreciates that the community around liminal space could see the beauty in seemingly random things that are a part of our daily lives. 

Abandonment tropes

Sabina Magliocco, a folklorist and professor of sociological anthropology at the University of British Columbia, says that the pandemic has transformed society, and that what we're collectively living through is very liminal.

"It feels betwixt and between. It feels like many of us are cut off from our everyday normal life, cut off from the kinds of interactions that we used to have," said Magliocco. 

She says interest in liminal 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 being desolate ... something that once was filled with life and is now empty," she said. 

"It is in a sense, a nod to our own mortality. At one point we will not be here anymore. The body that houses us, that holds our soul, our consciousness, will be simply an abandoned, empty husk."


Guests in this episode:

Liam Kimmons is a film student and photographer in Newmarket, Ont.
Sabina Magliocco is a folklorist and professor of sociological anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Aiden Tait is a PhD student in American literature at Dalhousie University.
Stuart Poyntz is a youth media researcher and professor of communications at Simon Fraser University.


*This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder

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