Urban Exploration Photography - Finding Beauty in Decay.
I have long respected the Urban Explorer, an adventurer and artist alike who combines their love of photography with a lust for adrenaline in order to produce stunning images of places we're not supposed to go. As a hobbyist photographer, I have always longed (but never had the nerve) to follow through with my seemingly innate curiosity about shooting abandoned places. Particularly places that were once grand in scale or architecture but have fallen into disrepair and neglect. Fates often caused by socioeconomic factors swirling outside the structure's door.
These places, though shadows of what they once were, retain enough hints of their beauty for those willing to see. One with such vision is Kelly Czyz, an urban explorer who was brave enough to venture in and document the state of several old buildings in (among other places) notorious Gary, Indiana. Here Kelly seizes a rare opportunity for self portraiture while on an expedition, a fellow urban explorer frames a shot in the background.
Gary is a city that boomed and burst with the steel industry that provided jobs in the community and begat ambitious structures like homes, churches, and movie theaters reflective of the wealth of the time. Like several US cities dependent on a single industry, it began it's dramatic decline in the Sixties. Through words and pictures we will witness what Kelly saw on just some of her expeditions into these forgotten places. Kelly's urban exploration story began where many peoples end... in cemeteries.
Kelly got her first SLR Camera for her birthday back in June 2000. It was a film camera and she was fascinated with all that it could do. Learning and experimenting with both black & white and color film as well as all it's settings. In this way, she essentially taught herself. Initially, Kelly had her cats and other things around the house to use as subjects. Then she burst outdoors and started photographing flowers and pretty much anything that caught her eye.
Kelly recounts a shift in subject matter. "I remembered a time when I was young and my mom would walk our dog in the cemetery nearby. I remember it being a peaceful place and I was fascinated by the old headstones. So I started exploring and taking pictures of the headstones and turning them into cemetery art/photography. This thrill of the hunt to find new things to shoot is what ultimately lead me into the world of urban exploring."
A once grand staircase in the Gary Methodist Church is now filled with dust and rubble as sunlight penetrates all around. In addition to the safety benefits, this photo illustrates the aesthetic benefits of shooting during the day.
Massive columns and arches remind us of a lost era of architecture. The dilapidation and decay cannot hide the beauty of this old church. "Buildings with a Gothic style appeal to me. I like photographing churches and anything antique or vintage."
"In the beginning, when going to cemeteries, I would go alone. Then I started taking My friend who also was getting into photography during that time and she got into cemetery photography as well. This was the same friend I (eventually) did my first urban explore with." Kelly explained.
Kelly says it was not difficult to find others who shared her interest in Urban Exploration. "We started out just the two of us but as we networked within the photography community, we started finding other Photographers with the same interests and we would collaborate and plan Urban Explorations and go as a group of 3 to 6 people. As it is always safer exploring abandoned buildings in numbers."
"I like finding an abandoned house that has been untouched as if the people just vanished and left everything as it was during that time. The older the better, finding a house set from the 1950's would be awesome, like finding a time capsule. It's a great find when you come across personal items like an old photo of the person who use to live there or their shoes placed by the doorway. I have been humbled to find old letters, dolls, and matchbox cars."
Desks, chairs, dressers, even a jewelry box remain mostly intact. These things belonged to people and add some personal narrative to the composition.
Pastel hues splatter the backdrop as a chair disintegrates in the foreground.
With the focus on broken glass, some crystalline artistry emerges like diamonds in the rough.
"Lighting is the main practical challenge associated with Urban Exploration photography. Places that are boarded-up provide very little natural light and force us to use flashlights, camera flash and other artificial sources of light to get the shot."
"Another challenge is balancing the need to travel light with the need to bring all the essential equipment. Having to hop fences and crawl in windows and other tight spaces is often necessary."
"Most abandoned places I've been are typically unsafe and not structurally sound. There's peeling lead paint, asbestos, pools of sewer water, rotting floors and partially caved-in ceilings. Sometimes, it's like your Indiana Jones trying not to take the wrong step that causes everything to collapse."
"Some places I've been in are much like being in a cave.... complete darkness... feeling your way thru... not knowing if your next step will be your last step. it's scary and exciting at the same time."
"Abandoned buildings are mostly in dangerous gangland, poverty stricken, and run-down areas. We are carrying thousands of dollars in camera equipment, which for a thief or for the desperate, it's like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit. But, for a girl Urbex'r, getting robbed is the least of the worries."
We asked Kelly if she ever felt as though a place was haunted: "I've experienced anomalies in just about every place I've explored. Often times, multiple cameras with fully charged batteries will drain down to zero soon after we enter a place then soon as we leave the camera works normally again. Or our lights will suddenly not work or start to flicker and (I've witnessed) other equipment malfunctions."
There is something surreal about a snow-covered interior hallway. "Protective gear is a must in these places. it's better to explore during the colder months... wearing hats, gloves, layers of clothing and thick sole boots are best."
"Trespassing is a risk that every Urban Explorer has to take. It's the name of game. Although, we have managed to get approval to enter some of the buildings we've explored, there were a few run-ins with police. Once, when we entered Saint Mary's hospital in Gary. They caught us within minutes of entering the building. It didn't help that the police station was right next door. Luckily, that was one of the places we had approval to enter. We showed them our papers and they let us continue exploring."
"Another time", Kelly recalls, "at an abandoned farmhouse in Crete, Illinois my friend and I were exploring the property and noticed the door to the house was open so we went in. We were in the basement of the house when we thought we heard a footstep upstairs. Then we heard a voice and when we went to go back up, the cops were standing at the top of the stairs waiting for us. They informed us that we were trespassing. We told them were just photographers trying to get a few pics. They said they were concerned more for our safety than anything else and let us go as long as we promised not come back. Mostly, I've found police to be pretty understanding. But, I have heard horror stories of them confiscating your camera equipment and arresting you for trespassing."
Kelly recommends trying Urban Exploration to anyone as long as you take it seriously. "My advice is to do some research on the abandoned places before setting out to explore them. Several of these places have a story to tell and key points of interest you don't want to miss while exploring. Some places you can go to over and over again while others you may only get one chance before the place is demolished so you want to make the most out of your exploration. It's best to have a plan and prepare for your exploration. Most places are dark so a headlamp is essential since you'll have your hands on your camera. You'll want to pack anticipating what you may need while also traveling light. A backpack is recommended. You will be crawling in tight places like a window and climbing over fences to get in these places so dress appropriately and always, always wear thick soled boots because the terrain is often layered with broken glass and nails sticking up thru the floor boards. I've had many nails stuck to the bottom of my boots and some have pierced through to my toes."
"Whether you are a man or a woman, I do not recommend exploring alone. It's best and safest to explore as a group. There are many potential dangers you will experience while exploring. And that can be anything from running into squatters to falling through an unstable floor or a roof caving in on you. Cautiously test your footing before taking your next step and always be aware of your surroundings."
When we asked Kelly about Ghost Hunters: "Going into these type of places...you will cross paths with ghost hunters. Urban exploring and ghost hunting tend to go hand in hand. You can't help but be a little bit of a ghost hunter going in these pitch black abandoned places with often very dark historys. I have been exploring with both Urbex and ghost hunting groups and it is often a mixed group of the two."
In a random hallway at St Mary's Hospital time stands still at 7:08. Kelly has shot at around 30 locations.
The standing water on the floor and natural light create a mirror effect down this hospital hallway.
You wouldn't want to take a blind step into this shaft at the water treatment plant at Manteno Mental Hospital. Another good reason to explore during the day.
"I'd say out of 5000 shots maybe 1500 of them are keepers. When shooting a particular place or object... I'd say 1 in every 10 shots are worthy of keeping."
"I use a Canon 40D. But I find that brand matters little. The kind of Camera used, whether an expensive pro camera or an inexpensive point and shoot, can both produce art. You can own 100k camera and produce a crappy shot. What produces a great shot is the creative mind's eye of the photographer." Says Kelly.
"Photography for me is a creative outlet. My emotions will come out in my photos but this is mainly thru the editing process and not the shooting of the photo itself."
If there are things that go bump in the night, this cavernous hallway would be their home.
Kelly prefers shooting in the morning or afternoon as that provides best lighting. She says she has yet to master nighttime photography. "It is an art in and of itself."
This frame is filled with contrast as terra cotta brick and burnt orange leaves emerge from the black.
"Often it's the history of the place that leads us to explore it. I try to find out as much as I can about a place before exploring it. But then there are the ones you happen upon, that you know nothing about, those are probably the scariest yet most exciting explores because you just never know what you are going to find."
Despite her use of digital nowadays, Kelly, as part of a B&W photography course, has had many hours of darkroom processing experience.
These hydrotherapy tub bases where people were essentially tortured with ice baths remain as silent testament to the horrors that occurred here. "Of all the places I've been, Manteno Mental Hospital has the most interesting and disturbing history."
This colorful photo proves that although the subject is an abandoned place, it does not have to yield an ominous or drab image.
The architecture makes the most of natural light, and translates well in this midday photograph.
Being that Urban exploration is something I've wanted to try. I can speak with heightened appreciation for those who not only explore these abandoned places but bring back photos to share of their experiences. When these photos are so evocative that they make us feel sadness, fear, loss, even joy; they become art. There is an additional value too because we don't know how much longer these places will be around for photographers like Kelly to explore. In these places it may appear as though time stands still, this is false. Every second of every day wood rots, metal rusts, even the stone can crumble. The only way that we truly stop time is in a photograph.
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