Thursday, November 11, 2021

"A World in Ruins"

Here is a kickstarter campaign for a photobook: A World in Ruins from Blueboat Press in the UK, photographs by James Lacey.

Bluecoat did Jim Mortram's Small Town Inertia which is a book that appears to be superb, and which I keep meaning to buy without ever actually getting around to it. The point here being that Bluecoat seems to be a stand-up outfit, so one wonders what the fuck they're doing publishing some shitty UrbEx project. One can only imagine that it's to pay the bills. I am vaguely surprised that this thing hasn't hit a billion dollars by now, but I guess in the general fade of photography interest, you maybe can't sell even this crowd-pleasing stuff as well any more.

Let's think a little about this category of stuff. I hate it, without reservation, and I (abstractly, not personally) hate the people who do it.

What do these pictures do? Well, they transport us to the interiors of abandoned buildings. We are there, in what remains of some other human endeavor. An abandoned home, or business. We see the detritus of a life, of a job, of an enterprise. We can see the bits and pieces, and we can imagine the lives that were here before. We feel the presence of ghosts, in a sense, as we spy on their stuff, on their life.

It is a kind of unsavory voyeurism. We're not supposed to be here, it's not our home. These are private things, that were intended to be shut away from prying eyes. The photograph makes this expedition of snooping safe, nobody is going to burst in on us demanding answers. Nobody need even know we're doing it.

These projects represent the worst of our gossipy, nosey, humanity. We can sneak about, but we can't be caught. It's fucking catnip. Which is why these goddamned things have traditionally always sold really well, and why people love these pictures, and thus why people keep taking them. The photographer could be caught. The photographer is being a nosey little sneak, but is at least taking the corresponding risk. He takes the risk, because he craves the social media likes.

None of this is very healthy.

If you think about it for more than a few moments, you realize that neither is it even real. There is a secondary layer of shittiness here!

All these guys have a story about how they never force entry, and they never disturb anything they find inside. This supports the viewer experience: "this is all real, just as it was left lo those many years ago" and also makes us feel better about being so nosey. Our proxy didn't actually break in, you know, "it was already open, so it's ok, right?"

Well, when James Lacey says that he only uses "natural entry" he does not mean "the ivy gently and naturally unlocked the front door" it means "someone else kicked the front door in." He also says " I leave the buildings as I find them and treat them with the respect they deserve after documenting them." UrbEx guys all say this, and we can be pretty sure some of them are lying. These doors are not kicking themselves in.

Let us cast our mind back to, I dunno, 1970. A house is locked up for the winter, dust covers over the furniture, dishes all put away, shutters closed, doors locked. Someone dies, the house is embroiled in some dispute of inheritance, and is somehow lost track of. It passes to the cousin in Australia, who later dies and leaves it to his children who don't care. The house is abandoned.

By 1990 it's visibly decrepit and overgrown. Some homeless guy, a local teenager, an Urban Explorer, someone kicks the door in to snoop around in there. Indeed, people come and go. People take up residence briefly, and move on.

The dust covers come off, shutters and curtains are opened. Curiosity or just a desire to sit down in the light. Someone digs out some blankets because they're cold. An UrbEx photographer sets the table because that looks cooler. As we've seen by examining photographs from the area around Chernobyl, photographers move things around, and bring in objects, relentlessly. The idea that some abandoned home is immune to this is ludicrous.

So, what we are actually looking at is the detritus not of a life lived, but of endless streams of visitors. Some want shelter, others want photographs, some are just nosey.

All these UrbEx guys are attracted to the mystery, so they say. Why is the chair placed there? Well, bub, it's almost certainly there because some other UrbEx idiot thought it would be more photogenic placed there. Which is probably why it's so photogenic there.

These things are dressed sets, dressed mostly with the detritus of the house, dragged out of various closets and boxes and the attic. I dare say there's a certain amount of material that's been dragged in as well. There is reason these damned pictures are so perfect, it's because many photographers have re-arranged them over and over, over literally years, until they look like that.

Sure, it's perfectly possible that James Lacey has never kicked in a door, but ironically the only way to reliably take the unsullied photos he claims to be taking is to kick the door in. Once the door has been kicked in, people are coming and going, people are moving things around, people are sullying the scene.


  1. I think that's a fair call. I stayed in an 800 year old castle several times while winemaking in Provence. The 4th floor was, shall we say, unrestored. It looked neither colourful nor artistic, but there was no one getting in to arrange stuff, either. Ditto a former hotel on the Riviera (same family), although the chapel in it has some nice washed out paint. Mmm, paint porn. Ditto the obsolete part of a ex communist but restituted winery in the Czech Republic. That was cool in a sort of batshit crazy communist megalomaniac sort of way but also rather sad as it was so poorly designed.

  2. "Some Abandoned Buildings In Ruins I Broke Into And Gussied Up" doesn't have quite the same caché.

  3. You're absolutely right. I checked out a few of these locations, and they're all well-flagged on urbex sites. For example:

    "Moulbaix Castle was last inhabited by Count Aymar d'Ursel and his wife Countess Nadine de Spoelberch. After the count had died in 2005 and the countess in 2007, the castle stood fully furnished but unhabited as their five children couldn't agree over who would inherit the castle. In the following ten years the abandoned castle dilapidated.

    During that decade it also became a famous destination for fans of urban exploration. The castle gained the nickname Château de la Police because they were regularly arrested by alerted police. The castle is also said to be hunted.

    In 2016 Moulbaix Castle was finally sold by auction by the descendants of the Count and Countess for 3.725 million euros to the Govaert family. What they are going to do with the castle is not yet known.

    The domain of Moulbaix Castle is private property and can therefore not be visited. A beautiful castle."

    "Unhabited"? "Hunted"? Freudian spellcheck, people! Also, I'm getting fed up with seeing "peek" (as in, "take a peek") spelled as "peak".

    So many things to be annoyed about, so little time...


  4. If the work is done in a documentary way, it doesn't bother me so much. After all, archeologists dig up old graves all the time, and that's a much greater invasion of privacy. The work coming off as cliché bothers me more, although just because something has been done before doesn't mean it should not be done again. One example of that is photography that points out or criticizes urban design. Of course it has been done many times, but showing the various new ways of making things uglier than they need to be can serve some purpose. People might feel smug about the "ruins of Detroit" if they live elsewhere, so it serves some purpose to show them that their town may not be that much better. Still though, the striving for new or unique subject matter is useful, even if it fails. There is a lot of failure at the leading edge of things, bound to be.

    1. Sure, there are probably many genres of this subject!

      I don't think this particular genre is leading edge, though, it's just pretty porn working well-worn tropes that don't reveal much, but do garner likes.

      But, as always, I appreciate you pointing out the things I lost track of in my hyper-focused ranting!

  5. The genre is plumbing new depths, with "AI" (for those lacking) photoshop filters, that plaster not ruins with fake overgrowth, rendering them gorgeous not ruins.

    Don't be kicking, be clicking!

  6. I have to admit your three paragraphs describing what these places really are makes me want to get in there and take some pictures. Sounds pretty interesting. I had never heard of this horrible UrbEx thing, but maybe I'm infected and don't know it.

    1. You are a bad person for even thinking of it! Buuut..

      I think it would be fun to visit UrbEx sites, bringing a picturesque object. Leave the object in the middle of the floor, just dumped there. Return monthly or so, whatever frequency works, to document the motion of the picturesque object through the site as photographers experiment with different positions.

  7. Hi Molitor...
    I think you'll have a blast looking at this:

    Have fun!

  8. I've bought a handful (or two or three, anyway) of books from Bluecoat, supported multiple Kickstarters, and at least one only/largely/partly because I got a bonus for being a previous supporter...

    I took one look at this and said "nope." Full stop, no discussion, no further email urgings have moved me. I buy MANY photobooks, as you know, and many of them are, let's be honest, absolute dreck. But even I sometimes have to say NO.