Since creating this blog a few days ago I have been struggling with exactly how I am going to use it? Do I document each explore at various derelict sites? Well, no – that’s what urban exploration forums such as urbexne.co.uk are for. So, do I post a nice photo every now and again…like oh, I don’t know…Facebook? No that’s already covered too. I got thinking and decided that I should just begin writing a series of articles around urbex and urbex photography as and when ideas occurring coincide with free time. Seems obvious to me now so it looks like that is what this will be. I am going to try to get at least one of these out a week on a Sunday evening as I often spend Sunday mornings exploring and then the afternoon processing and uploading photos.
Urban Exploration (or UE/urbex for those not appraised of the lingo) basically means exploring ones urban environment – in particular, those parts of the environment that have been forgotten about or hidden from the people around it. Be it an abandoned factory, building site crane or derelict lunatic asylum, they almost always contain at least some remnant of their previous life. Sometimes it’s a pile of interesting documents, other times it might be a framed photo of someone special – to someone, a typewriter, a 2-storey high Victorian steam pump. You can never quite tell for sure what you are going to find. I thought this could make for an interesting first article so here we go.
I have been asked the question many times when describing interesting found items “So, did you take it then?”. This seems to stem from the assumption that once something is left in an abandonment, it is not considered to belong to anyone. However, the law considers every item on private grounds the property of the landowner. Those who partake in UE walk a razor-thin line to keep from breaking criminal law (Trespass being a much less serious breach of civil law – making a mental note to write one of the next articles on Urbex and The Law…of possibly a series of articles given the can of worms that it is!). Anyway, taking something as trivial as a pencil away from private property is still considered theft. If you are searched and have such items then an officer with a mind to do so can ensure you get at least a night in the cells.
Photographing Your Find
While there are no hard and fast rules (and I don’t believe there should be) about capturing items found, there are some general principles I like to use when taking photos of items. As anyone who has done any portrait photography will tell you, using depth-of-field well can make a subject appear to pop out of a composition. “Wait! Depth of what?” Put simply, this is the area that is in focus. Generally speaking, as you move from your lens towards the back of the shot, items will gradually come into focus and then blurry again as you keep going back. The DoF is the area that is clearly in focus. If you want to show everything clearly, you would create a deep field where everything remains in focus. However, as you narrow this area, any items caught in the centre will draw your eyes and the remaining area (usually the background) will have a pleasing soft focus – just enough detail to give an impression of context. I don’t want to go into heavy detail (and am just leaning much of this photography lark myself) but the wider your lens aperture (lower the f-number) then the shallower the depth-of-field will be. A lens that has been tried and tested for this and will not break the bank is the f1.8 50mm otherwise known as the ‘nifty fifty’. I never go exploring without it. Framing is also important, so compose your shot taking into account where the subject sits both within the shot and relative to its background. Lighting is another important consideration. I like to avoid using the flashgun where possible. A lot of the atmosphere in these types of places comes from the light creeping in the windows, doorways and, in many cases, where the roof used to be. The long dramatic shadows cast can really add an extra aspect to a shot. Sometimes though, there is just not enough light or maybe you want to play with casting your own shadows. You can use a torch for this and play around with the point of origin and direction. If you are in a group, convince a friend to hold the torch out of shot at the other corner of the room and cast long shadows…or not…as I say, no rules, just see what works for you.
Data Protection…Or Lack Thereof
Before exploring old places of work, I would have assumed that offices being closed would, as a matter of course, be carefully cleared of all important documents relating to the business, it’s customers and it’s staff. I was amazed to find out this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Be it a hospital leaving piles of confidential patient records, businesses leaving stacks of box folders containing receipts and invoices for 35 years of transactions, sometimes the complete staff records right down to the appraisals and occupational health reports. If I may be a trespassing hypocrite for a moment, the law is very clear about this kind of thing and leaving these things in an unsecured building you can wander into off the street is not, to give it its legal term, cool. Law and morality aside, browsing through one or two of the abandoned files can offer an otherwise-impossible insight to the history of the site. You can see takings falling, Records abruptly ending as the doors are closed, little insignificant details which remind you that these neglected walls once enclosed a community of people with whole lives. These things add a tiny bit of flesh back onto the skeleton that remains of the building. It may not be a lost Gospel, you’re not going to find cave paintings but still, this is history just the same.
Like night follows day you always know that, even when a derelict building appears stripped down to the bare bones and looks ready for the wrecking ball, there will always be – somewhere – that one sad-looking chair sitting in the middle of an otherwise-empty room. Your typical urban explorer will find it hard to resist that vaguely haunting photograph of the empty chair and it has become somewhat of a cliché now…but we still can’t help ourselves. It could be the way it hints at old crumbling shells once having been a thriving place of work or it could just be your photographer-explorer making do with the one remaining compositional element to frame a shot around. Either way, if you look through an urbex photo-report and the chair shot isn’t there…they probably weren’t looking hard enough.
By their very nature abandoned buildings are left in a state where Joe Bloggs is not expected to be wandering around. This means that often there are items left, rightly or wrongly, which are best given a wide berth. I have seen dangerous asbestos bags piled up in corners, hospital waste (and not even in a hospital), acids, chemicals of all kinds not to mention dangerous machinery. So, one has to employ a little common sense and know where not to poke around.
On that cheerful note I must sign off and get some sleep. Please let me know what you think and share my blog if you think others might be interested. Cheers.
UPDATE: Since declaring that I would write big blog articles every week, I realised just how much work that is and, in fact, how little time I have by Sunday to do such things. As a compromise, I will just stick whatever I feel like on whenever I feel like posting it. …There, a commitment vague enough to keep to. 🙂