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Photographing Abandoned Buildings and Spaces

Posted by Rachael Towne on

Have you ever looked at an abandoned building or place and wondered, what was this place before everybody moved out and why did they move out? 

Tom Kirsch, a photographer who created Opacity.us goes where people would normally cross the street to get away from, that scary goosebumps place that has overgrown gardens and broken windows. 

Kirsch takes the forgotten and using photography his work comes alive and the emotion is thick. You will be touched, taken aback and lost in thought as you witness such a unique style of shooting. 

There are thousands upon thousands of photographers who take images that are easy to the eye. Yet, Kirsch captures the uneasy and mystery and leaves it to the viewer to experience its full emotion pull. 

Kirsch prefers his photographs to be shared only on his website, so I implore you to view it. http://opacity.us/ to really get a grasp of doing something different. None of the images in this article are his. 

His work includes, abandoned and broken roller coasters to a closed theatre in 1977. Or an entire street of emptiness in New Orleans, six years after Hurricane Katrina hit. Kirsch’s comment:

“From some vantage points it was possible to have a 360° view of absolute vacancy. A shiny barbed wire fence stretched along the blight, but the gates were left swinging in the cold January breeze.” 

Viewing Kirsch’s work and his commentary about the places he visits is a bit eerie. Good photography is like that, it pushes one’s thoughtful boundaries as well as building up emotions to leave you with a thought and/or feeling that you dwell on days after you witnessed it. 

Photographing something different

As mentioned above, there are a multitude of travel, landscape, wedding photographers, yet what if you wanted to photograph something different? Something that drawed you in every day? Take the shot, take another and build your courage to photograph what you find interesting, because you never know who might find it just as interesting too.

Question everything

How do you want your audience to respond to your work? How do you want to feel after you take the shot? Will doing something different than the more popular choices of photography, push your skills further? When you start to question everything, your brain tries to find an answer to each question, therefore, question everything and go with your gut instinct on what to try next. 

Let your photography set the scene

Kirsch admitted that when passing by a small cemetery as the sun was setting, “Some of the stones almost began to glow as the moon rose... so we grabbed our cameras.” Always be ready to take a photograph when you least expect it. For example, the sun setting can capture lighting on a particular building or backdrop that creates the photograph. Look out for these types of photograph opportunities and if you think, this will make a great photograph. It probably will, so have your camera ready at all times and take the shot.   

Tell a story

Photography isn’t just images or images of things, the entire shot tells a story. Kirsch embraces this by shooting images of abandoned places and then researches the history of what that building was to answer the questions to the story. So instead of seeing a ripped up hallway (a photograph of Heiden Hotel), Kirsch adds what this photograph is presently, what it was in its former life and the story to why it was abandoned. Plus statistics such as it:

  • Opened as a Hotel in 1906.
  • Closed in 1986.
  • Age: 110 years.
  • Decaying for: 21 years.
  • It’s demise: A fire broke out in May 2007, destroying the entire structure. 

What you should know before you go

If this type of photography interests you, there are a few things to do first before you pack your bags and go on a road trip.

For example, always call the contact who is looking after the historic building. If they do tours etc., it is important to ask if you are allowed to use tripods, flash etc. Some places do not allow photographs to be taken, so this is important to know before you make a long journey. Also ask when the slowest time of the day is for when visitors come through, this may help you be able to take photographs without being in other people’s way or have them in your shot.  

In terms of your camera gear, remember when inside old buildings, there might be dark corners and rooms. Be careful not to take big bags so you don’t knock down half a wall. For general shots and outdoor shots, a wide-angle is ideal. Older buildings generally have exquisite stone carvings on the outside, so take the time to look at the detail and make sure your camera can capture it, to really highlight something unique.

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