The next issue of Urban Realm will include a few photos I took ten years ago in an abandoned building which has since been demolished.  If you drove down the road today, you’d never know it existed, and that gives the images more meaning and greater power – or perhaps just an innate sense of melancholy for what’s now gone.

I trained as an architect, so it goes without saying that I’m interested in buildings for their own sake; but shooting photos of abandoned places has also made me sensitive to the relationship between the man-made and the natural.  That might be how industrial architecture such as a colliery or steelworks sits in the landscape, but also how nature takes back buildings, such as when ferns take root inside a derelict mill. 

Years ago I came across a book called “In Search of the Wild Asparagus” and that was one of the rare occasions I’ve come across an author describing an experience I can identify with exactly.  In one chapter, the botantist Roy Lancaster rambles over the sand dunes at Ainsdale Beach, and that brought back my own trips to Tentsmuir Point and Buddon Ness, exploring the wartime bunkers and flotsam which the tide had brought in. 

In another chapter, Lancaster described how he explored wasteland and bombsites - then went on to discuss the rather commonplace plants he discovered there, such as fireweed, goldenrod and buddleia flourishing amongst piles of crumbling masonry and rusting pipework.  Nature and the man-made exist in a two-way relationship which is closer to synergy than dichotomy: you can see exactly that when a plant takes root in a crumbly old wall, or mounds of moss choke up the rones.

Roy Lancaster’s photos show the visual richness of old industrial sites being reclaimed by nature, and I’ve gone back many times to places like this, to root around for interesting objects and textures and juxtapositions to draw and photograph.

As I’ve alluded to before, shooting photos of newly-completed buildings requires a different approach.  Many contemporary buildings are visually sterile, lacking the rich textures and colours of decay, but also any sense of time passing and the history implicit in that.  Of course, if you shoot photos of cocktail bars and nightclubs, they may have lots of colour, pattern and detail – but for the most part “maximalism” is unpopular in contemporary design. 

That leaves you with architectural photography as a study of materials, natural light and proportions and its poorest relation is the Grand Designs House, which is often very reductive and boils down to aspirational people who create the biggest volume they possibly can for the money, paint the interior white, then scatter a few pieces of furniture around.  They use industrial cladding and reinforced concrete in the hope it will save them money (it rarely does) and the glazing often consists of huge single-aspect screens which provide great views, but blast the front of the space with uncontrolled light.

Perhaps this sterility helps to explain the appeal of photobooks about abandoned places, but these books have their own hang-up.  The authors are desperate to show us places which are “hidden”, “secret” or “unknown”.  I wish them well, but in my experience very little is secret any more – the internet has put an end to that, and uninvited visitors with cameras tend to follow in each others’ footsteps.  Besides, these mysterious places were someone’s home, workplace or church until a few years ago, and it takes a generation at least for people to forget them.

The search for abandonment is an odd discipline.  I know a few people who have travelled far and wide to collect “that shot”, the perfect capture of somewhere which others have been before them.  Places like the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl power plant and nearby town of Pripyat in Ukraine, or the former Communist memorial house on top of the mountain at Buzludzha in Bulgaria - http://www.buzludzha-monument.com/

Does pursuing your own version of an iconic photo devalue the photo that you take yourself?  No, because it’s still your image and you got the chance to see the place with your own eyes.  But it does devalue the intention behind it.  The more somewhere is publicised on the net, the less secret it is, and if you chase these chimaeras, you risk becoming the thing which everybody hates – a tourist.

The tourist looks at everything as a photo-opportunity (usually involving a selfie to post on Instagram); the architectural traveler looks at buildings as an opportunity to learn, perhaps from their detailing or materials choices.  But I’m still interested in stepping outside the professional architect’s mindset – although I realise that after over 20 years it can never really be switched off – and trying to look at buildings as subject matter, something I can photograph or sketch/paint.

Over the past year I’ve met up several times with a friend who shares my interest in decay and abandonment.  Although we both studied at Duncan of Jordanstone, we followed different disciplines and after each trip I look forward to seeing her photos, because she sees the world in a markedly different way.  As she said, it’s very obvious our photos were taken by different people.

So far I’ve been surprised and puzzled at how different our subject matter, technique, processing and everything else is, considering we visited the same place at the same time, and watched each other working with the same “content”.  Sometimes it’s difficult: although we have much in common it feels like we’re struggling to find a shared language.  There is much room for misunderstanding, but we’ve shared a few things already and she’s begun to help me see things differently.

There you go, that’s as much of a positive message as you’re going to get at the end of 2018, while the world outside descends into constitutional crisis and madness.  Happy Christmas and all the best for 2019…

By Mark • Albums: ghosts