Space & Place is a year long project that has explored the theme of space and place through an artist residency, group show, photography workshops and in November will conclude with a photography exhibition featuring the work of photography collective, ‘Abandoned Yorkshire’.
Leading up to the exhibition, Darren Mills interviews the collective to discover the inspiration and driving forces behind their work.
How did you start urban exploration?
Completely by accident and before we even knew it was a ‘thing’. A friend had been passing by a local abandoned church walking his dog, put his hand through an open window and fired off some pics on his iPhone and posted them on Facebook. My friend and the other half of AY saw them first and having just been bought a camera for Christmas, phoned me and asked if I wanted to go take a look. We did and caught a bug that day. The rest, like the subject matter, is history!
What motivates you guys to seek out and photograph these abandoned buildings?
It used to be the thrill and surprise at what was in these buildings. Then as the scalps got bigger so the security aspect and the risk of getting caught increased. This then took more planning and became a small military-style operation. Then after that, the frustration at seeing what was being left behind began to set in, and the sense of loss of heritage really kicked in. So really a mix of all of the above.
How do you research sites before selecting where to take photographs?
It might be a tip-off from a fan of the page, a report or set of pics from other explorers we’ve seen on a forum or maybe just an area we haven’t been, we’ll then Google it and see what is about historically. It used to be in the beginning that we’d drive about and find places and really go into the explore ‘blind’ as such, not knowing whether there would be security or other hazards. As we got to know more people in the community we ended up trading access details, making things much easier and safer but also taking a lot of the fun out of the experience.
Have you ever been surprised at what you’ve found in a building?
Haha. We’ve never found anything sinister if that is what you mean but we’ve had a feral, pure white kitten jump out on us at one place, each time we went. That was very ‘Alice-In-Wonderland’ weird. A burst mains water pipe in another place that was absolutely thundering out of the basement. I think we may have tipped the water board off about that one anonymously but it was still the same when we went back 6 months later. An old bunker with the back up systems and electricity still working was oddly unsettling. No dead bodies though. Apart from pigeons.
What sort of things do you consider when thinking about which buildings to photograph? For example, historical significance, the building’s function and more practical things like how to get in and what kit to take?
It’s really about what takes our fancy at the time. If we have a few options we’ll go with the most visually attractive option. If that is too difficult to gain access we’ll have a plan B or C in the vicinity to make sure we don’t go home empty handed. We always take the same kit, camera and tripod, so that has no bearing on the decision.
Your collective is called ‘Abandoned Yorkshire’ but do you explore further afield?
Yes absolutely. We came up with the name in the infancy, when we were just documenting our trips for friends on Facebook. As we never expected it to get so big and before we knew there were a whole underground community of folk doing it, it was just a quirky name to label the album of photos. The name may have been the reason for the success, who knows, but it started getting shared around and within 2 weeks of starting it had kind of gone viral. After travelling all over the country and abroad to see what delights elsewhere had to offer, and after some moans of ‘well that’s not Yorkshire’, we put it to fans of the page on whether we should change the name. Overwhelmingly we were told to keep it.
How do you gain access to abandoned buildings?
Many ways. Proudly, we can say that we have never forcefully gained access to a building and there have been many a time when we have gone home empty handed. But usually, where there’s a will there’s a way. Depends how far you want to push it. It might be squeezing through a drain or climbing 40ft up a drainpipe to reach a broken window, the risk is entirely your own and you really have to way up whether the risks at the time are worth it. I have many a time risked injury to get in a building only to find after that the front door was open. Always try the door first!
Lighting really creates a sense of atmosphere within your work but you probably have little control over it. What sort of things do you look for to help convey the type of mood you want to create in an image?
Timing. We try and enter these buildings before sunrise for the most dramatic lighting if the weather is kind to us. This also gives us the benefit of getting in whilst its still dark, minimising the risk of being seen by the public or security. This means ridiculously early starts in the Summer and a bit of a lie-in in the Winter.
Some of your images have a very atmospheric, other worldly, cinematic quality to them that could be likened to the artistic styles of David Lynch and Gregory Crewdson. Are there any artists which you’re inspired by?
As a freelance photographer myself prior to the urban exploring, I suppose I have developed styles and editing techniques over the years that will have lent to the atmosphere in the images. Funnily enough Gregory Crewdson was an inspiration before the abandoned building stuff so maybe some of that rubbed off. But intentionally no, I just look for the best light and composition and edit according to what brings the best out of a particular scene.
What do you get most enjoyment from, finding the buildings and the act of taking the photographs or the satisfaction of enjoying a cohesive collection of images which you’ve created?
Hmmm, tough question. Whilst I do enjoy the process and the excitement of entering the buildings and the surprise of what we may find, I would have to say I enjoy the spoils of the explore more, the finished images.
Can you give any advice on the techniques to use to capture shots of abandoned buildings and what would you say is essential equipment for these types of projects?
Technique wise I’ve changed a couple of times. I used to go in and shoot like crazy, come out with 300 images and pick a few good ones. Then I tried HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging which involves taking 3 or more exposures of the same shot and merging them together in post process. This gives a nice even image where you can see detail in all areas of the shot including shadows and highlights, but ultimately I felt this was taking away the ambience and mood of what I was witnessing personally so I have now gone back to single shot images where I will focus on the light in a place and let the rest fade to dark. The only essential equipment for any of these type of shots is a tripod and of course camera.
Do you consider any of your work as particularly important as a historical record?
At first no, it didn’t cross our mind, but I think as time has gone on and some places we’ve visited have been renovated, burnt down or demolished I definitely do think the images will serve as a great reminder of what we have let disappear, architecturally and historically. I think the authorities that see us as a pest now will be happy for the visual records in years to come.
Which building has been your favourite to photograph and why?
St Joseph’s Seminary. I have such a fondness for the place. Because it seemed such a feat to get into the place when we first started out we held it high up as our Mecca, the one we had to see. The building had guards, cctv and an awful alarm that was the main part of most peoples reports of the place, so when we finally did get to see the interior after a failed first attempt and a dicey cat and mouse chase with security and the local constabulary the 2nd time, it was a huge sense of accomplishment. Also the place is huge and after 10+ visits and probably spending 3hrs+ per visit I reckon there are still a couple of little parts I haven’t seen. A glorious building.
The exhibition at Left Bank Leeds is a fantastic opportunity to showcase your work. What have you found interesting about the process of putting on an exhibition and what are you most looking forward to whilst it’s on?
To be honest, I’m overwhelmed by the whole thing. There was never any intention of any of this getting so big. It was just a record of 2 lads scrambling around old buildings and taking a couple of pics along the way. How it’s reached 15,000 followers, a website, merchandise and an exhibition is way beyond my grasp haha. I’m not setting myself any expectations as I don’t want to feel any disappointment associated with this hobby I love. I just hope people can appreciate the images and what goes into getting them and it brings some awareness to the history and heritage of these places that are disappearing from view.
Space & Place has been made possible with thanks to the support of Arts Council England and Leeds City Council.
Text by Darren Mills and images by Abandoned Yorkshire.