The Joy of Urbex!
Before we start, no, it’s nothing kinky! It’s just spelt with an ‘ex’ in it, which maybe made you think that. It’s a perfectly respectable hobby for many people, and involves photography, buildings and decay mostly. Definitely nothing to do with what you maybe thought it was to do with…
Today’s topic is nothing to do with parenting either and everything to do with the offbeat and strangely beautiful world of Urbex. Apologies if you’re sat there waiting for tales of potty training, sparkling brand new lurid plastic toys, or how to make pink buns. You’ll be disappointed. I get bored sometimes, hence this post. I wanted to write about something else for a change, something off topic – Urbex is definitely that.
If you’re wondering what Urbex is, I’ll start with the definition as defined by Wikipedia:
Urban exploration (often shortened as urbex or UE) is the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities. Urban exploration is also commonly referred to as infiltration, although some people consider infiltration to be more closely associated with the exploration of active or inhabited sites. It may also be referred to as “draining” (when exploring drains) “urban spelunking”, “urban caving”, or “building hacking”.
That, I have to admit, is very wordy. Even by my stakes! Urbex is ‘Urban Exploration’ shortened so that it sounds catchy. As far as I understand it is the exploration of abandoned places and the observation of decay, whether that be disused tunnels, old buildings, or rusting machinery (just a few examples there). You could say that it’s finding beauty in unusual places. Many people take a camera along so that they can capture the often very striking images that they find. Graffitti is often an important influence too, it isn’t always as simple as swearing in paint daubed on a wall – Banksy in particular has proved that in recent years.
You might wonder how anyone could find eye-catching images in amongst old, broken, slowly decaying places and things; but there are old classic painting tableaus of fruit gradually surrendering to mould for example. These are established masterpieces. Urbex, you could say, is an urban study of this crumbling process. Decay and gradual destruction has been studied and painted since time immemorial.
So, why do I love this kind of photography? There are many reasons, the first of which is because I love a good story. Your average photograph of, say a tree on a hillside, is what it is – it is visually pleasing, and maybe conveys some sort of emotion about space or nature, but that’s it. For me a photograph of an abandoned place immediately sparks questions and intrigue, and more often than not an eerie aftertaste. It bump starts my imagination and a photograph becomes so much more than an image. Maybe I’m given to an over-active imagination, but I find as soon as I see an Urbex photograph I begin constructing a back story.
If you look carefully at the photograph of the door at the start of this article, you will notice the ‘Danger Keep Out’ sign: this immediately made me wonder why? Is there a monster with red eyes and claws waiting to be unleashed, is there an alternate Narnia-esque universe behind the door, could there be the ghost of an old headmistress peering through the black windows, poised to put you in eternal detention should you dare to knock? In reality there’s probably just a drift of old junk mail and maybe a dead rat or two…..but it’s fun to imagine scenarios.
For me, Urbex photography is history and curiosity crystallized in an instant. The piano is a perfect illustration of this: was this a place that people wore evening gowns and walzed around a living room, or could it have been a hospital where drugged up inmates sat around in pyjamas, listening to old ladies singing war time ditties on a plinkety plonk piano? When the nights are dark and the wind howls through the corridors, do lost souls huddle together for a sing-along on tuneless broken piano keys? I love the questions and the possibilities.
Another reason I’m fascinated with the subject is because I like finding lost things. I’m terrible for picking up bits of old pottery washed up amongst the pebbles by streams – simply because they are remnants of a time gone by. They are mostly shattered pieces of cups, jars or plates, used and eventually abandoned by their owners. It’s like finding a connection to times and people long ago lost in the ether. Urbex is exactly that for me.
This next photograph is my very first attempt at something that vaguely resembles Urbex. I’m not sure what this strange concrete building actually was. All I know is that it is about 20 feet away from the a railwayline and that it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Air Raid Shelter’, although it can’t possibly have been that (well I seriously doubt it anyway). It has that perfect mix of mystery and quirkiness, and the graffitti adds a little too. If you look carefully it says ‘Welcome to Our Home!’ and ‘Danger!’ written in clumsy white paint. Was it a tramp’s home, or was it, as I prefer to imagine, the home of a railway troll? I’ve never heard of a railway troll, but maybe this one just got sick of sitting under damp bridges and wanted a change of scenery? Who knows? You have to admit that when you look carefully at the second gap in the concrete it looks a little like there’s an eye staring back at you too….
I managed to take the photograph exactly as the setting sun shone through a gap in the stonework, so it looks like there’s a glowing orb suspended at the entrance. Perhaps it could pass for a spirit hovering there? The second photograph shows a side angled shot of the entrance, the unusual layering of the stonework and the way it seems to raise up out of the ground reminds me of the old paperback covers of Dune, and the illustrations of the huge Sandworms that roamed the vast deserts. I’m showing my sci-fi geek roots here, but I’ve never really pretended to be anything else, so there’s no loss in admitting I’ve read and appreciated these kind of books.
People interpret things in different ways, and others may see old broken things and mould in the photographs where I see ghosts, histories and plot twists. Each to their own. Urbex can be interpreted, observed and photographed from many angles – this blog post is my angle and my interpretation. I see trolls, giant worms, ghosts, forgotten times, places re-discovered and imagined. I love Urbex and its mystery.
What do you think? Do images such as these trigger your imagination and your curiosity, or do you simply long for photographs of sunny days and bunches of flowers? I can see the attraction of both, but for me, nothing beats the edginess of Urbex.
The first four photographs were taken by Chis Maskell, who is known on Twitter as @ChrisDMRF and here’s a link to his Flickr page if you’d like to take a look at other photographs he’s taken. CLICK HERE! I’ve spent ages wandering around the pages there, and find them endlessly fascinating. I hope you’ll visit and appreciate them as much as I have done. Many thanks to him for allowing me to use his images. :O)