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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dying for Likes

In the usual places we're seeing the monthly "Urbex (urban exploration) photographer dies in fall" story making the rounds. These are guys that trespass on rooftops, on ledges, in abandoned buildings, and so on, to take photographs. You've probably seen their pictures. The peeling paint covered over with graffiti, the rooms filled with mysterious junk, the long long hallway. Sometimes they bring a hot model along to decorate the scene, sometimes not.

Back up.

I was one of those amateurs, for twenty years, that was searching. Not Urbex, but I was still looking for something. I knew the iconic photos, and I could tell there was something there. Moonrise over Hernandez, Behind The Train Station, Migrant Mother, and so on. I didn't know what was there, but I wanted a piece of it, and I couldn't get it. Gear and technique didn't get the job done, tried that out thoroughly. Getting out there to shoot similar subjects also no. Not to say that I accomplished the same degree of technical perfection or of timing that the really good ones got, but enough to be certain that it didn't matter. Getting a sharper lens, timing my shots more precisely, that wasn't gonna do it, because there was something else there. Something I was missing.

Projecting my own pattern on to the modern milieu, I see millions of photographers laboring away for Likes on social media, and I cannot help but think this is the same search, performed somewhat differently.

The essential difference is that if you do the marketing work (follow people, comment, like their pictures, engage, engage, engage) then you can get all the Likes you want. It's just work. Or you can buy them. The point is that if you translate your search into a search for Likes, the solution is clear and doable. You just have to do a lot of work that's got nothing to do with photography or art-making. I tried that too, but Likes were not the something I was looking for.

I cannot help but think that for most people the Likes are not enough. I offer as evidence the fact that people continue to buy new gear, they travel to new places, they experiment with new methods, new angles, new materials. They're still looking for something, I submit.

To be fair, many people simply enjoy the process, and more power to them. Maybe you bought the Polaroid because you just love the way it looks and feels, you love the results. But really, let us be honest, many of you bought it because you hoped it might bring you that special something you can't quite put your finger on.

This manifests itself most forcefully in the Urbex community. These guys are literally all taking the same pictures. They share locations, methods, they take one another on tours to their "secret" spots that only they and every graffitist on earth knows about. Abandoned buildings all look pretty much the same. Long long hallfways ditto. Decorating it with a model will get you more likes, but only because "hot chick." So when an Urbex guy (or, very very rarely, gal) wants to try something new, it often manifests as climbing out on something, getting a little further up, or out, or deep, and then they get killed.

While it's glib to say what I said in the title, they're dying for Likes, I don't want to believe that's quite it.

I think they're looking for something bigger, and Likes is just a proxy they're settling for, for now. I think they're trying for that special something they saw in the photos they've so-long admired. But what? What even is that?

I'm gonna save your life now. It's not a slightly more extreme angle, it's not a never explored abandoned mental hospital.

It's meaning.

Meaning, broadly construed, of course.

What do you want to tell me? No, no, not words. Not an essay. Not a poem. Pictures. What are your pictures trying to convey? Work on that. This means staring hard at the day's take, trying to make sense of it. This means introspecting, searching inside yourself, struggling to make sense of your life, your pictures, where you are and what you think. What's your opinion about this abandoned building? Do you have an idea? A concept? A vision? Show us that.

Don't climb out on that pylon, just to get a few more Likes. If it's essential to your vision, sure, go on out there. But for god's sake, wear a harness.


  1. The interesting question is: What makes these abandoned places so special, what is the reason for the emotional impact they have on so many people? I believe that an "urbex" photographer who doesn't ponder these questions is in danger of producing clich├ęs.

    Best, Thomas

    1. They always come out looking like lame copies of Francesca Woodman, who is pretty overrated herself. But at least she had a concept which played really well with the locations she was shooting in.

      Maybe it's just that I can't shake HER conception of these places, and so that colors how I see the pictures, I dunno.

    2. Abandoned places of all kinds have always had a hold on the western artistic imagination. Gothic ruins appear in Romantic era paintings and poetry, or even as fake ornaments in landscape gardens. They encourage melancholy, reflection on human transitoriness, and are of course spooky in the dark. One of the most staggering bits of urbex is Gunkanjima, the abandoned islet off Nagasaki in Japan - you can walk round bits of it in Google Maps.

      Andrew, I simply don't get your reference to Woodman in this context. And I think the best urbex photos have a rigorous Becher-like discipline about them.

    3. I'm willing to stipulate that there is maybe a fantastic body of work out there that I haven't seen.

      Most of it online, produced by amateurs, is endlessly the same except for the presence or absence of models. Possibly they're just aping the motions of a real thing that I'm unaware of, with the usual results?

      Woodman did a bunch of self-portraits is abandoned or abandoned-looking spaces, and I have to admit that I like them better than I did a few years ago. They're not about the spaces, so much, but the spaces play a big role and of course there is the whole element of ghostly/haunting/etc. If I recall correctly, she used some methods for making her own image ghostly, translucent, which certainly helps. Anyways, she ALSO had that sort of lame "I don't know what the hell I am doing, so I guess I'll take my clothes off and hope it means something" vibe of the clueless, seeking something, anything, to stand out from the crowd.

      It's not the same as climbing out on a pylon, except figuratively, and she had a lot more on the ball than a lot of "urbex" pictures I see out there, but it's related.

    4. Commenter "ericke" made my point explicit. Melancholy, spookyness etc. could be aspects to elaborate in a project, for example - another possible theme would be the history of a particular building or place - there is probably a lot more. But just taking pictures of derelict stuff since it's hot on the web won't cut it.

      Best, Thomas

    5. Absolutely! These spaces ARE evocative, and there's no reason you couldn't build something really great around pictures of them.

      And, I hope it was clear, that is what I intended to end this piece on: pull together a good concept, a good idea, and then it might not be necessary to strive for that angle that's 3 degrees more extreme than the previous guy's.