Photographing Decay: The Strange Appeal and Educational Qualities of Abandoned Places

(Image: Dennis Gerbeckx, cc-nc-2.0)

While Urban Ghosts covers a range of subjects, most of our content to date has focussed on historically intriguing places long since abandoned.  So today, in the wake of our 500,000th unique visit, it’s time to take a step back and ask a couple of questions: why are we so fascinated by forgotten places? and why do mainstream individuals indulge in this strange under-the-radar hobby known as urban exploration?  From a visual perspective, urbex photographer Thomas Slatin has some answers.

(Image: Brent Pearson, cc-nc-nd-2.0)

Writing on, Thomas explains that “taking photos of abandoned places can teach you an enormous number of specialized skills that are generally not taught in a traditional classroom setting.”  He highlights four main areas – framing, attention to detail, mental awareness and preservation – which can help improve your technique with subject matter not limited to urban decay.

(Image: Erika Karl, cc-nc-2.0)

Framing – This has nothing to do with what is clamped around a photo before it goes on the wall, and everything to do with how a composition is established.  Thomas stresses the importance of thinking ahead before even snapping a photo, and considering what the image will look like once printed.

(Images: Rick Harris, cc-sa-2.0)

Attention to detail – This means the little things, often unnoticed, that can make a photograph come to life.  To illustrate this point, Thomas uses a doll (similar to the one above found in the abandoned Lee Plaza building in Detroit), which has since become one of his most sought-after images.

(Image: Stefan Ray, cc-nc-sa-2.0)

Mental awareness – An awareness of your surroundings is crucial in capturing that perfect shot, but is also important due to the hazards posed by abandoned buildings (see below).  Thomas attributes his heightened awareness to his previous experience as an emergency medical technician and firefighter.

(Image: Brandon Woods, cc-nc-sa-2.0)

Preservation – Many of those individuals loosely defined as urban explorers are preservationists, or at least approach the hobby with some interest in the history of the places they seek to explore.  Photographing abandoned buildings, while potentially generating some mysterious and inspiring imagery, is also an important way of chronicling our past in pictures.

(Images: Norbert Löv, cc-nc-2.0)

These areas outline how abandoned places can help improve photographic technique with a range of other subjects, and highlight why many urban explorers are also photographers.  (Keep in mind that abandoned structures are extremely hazardous places, and should never be entered without permission.  Thomas covers safety and legality issues in this article.)

(Image copyright: MattLambros)

But what about other explorers who aren’t historians or photographers?  The fact is that humans are curious creatures and have long been drawn to the strange, the mysterious or the seemingly off-limits.  Just as hardened skeptics might still secretly find talk of ghosts or UFOs compelling, abandoned places appeal to our sense of intrigue, and often draw us in for reasons we don’t always comprehend.  (For a tutorial on photographing urban decay, click here.)

Keep reading – don’t miss our Brief Introduction to Urban Exploration, and infiltrate (online only, that is!) more abandoned places here.

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