The obsession of urban decay photography

What is the fascination for abandoned and decaying places?

What is now termed as “ruin porn”, “urban exploration (UE or URBEX)”, “urban decay photography”, “ruins photography” ~ is a new form of tourism which has developed in the past 10 years.

Helensburg Tunnel
Old and abandoned Helensburg Tunnel, NSW

 Photographing old and abandoned places makes a stark change from the standard wildlife, landscape and portrait photography. 

There is a fascination and beauty to be found behind boarded up old and abandoned decaying buildings, factories, residences and old ruins. Sites that have fallen into disrepair, with layers of decay, peeling paint and wallpaper, rusty fittings, graffiti, and with hints of untold stories of what life might have been like.

There is a certain kind of mystery with urban decay photography, such as the anticipation when entering old and abandoned places, not knowing what you will find. While it can be considered as trespassing when armed with a camera and not bolt cutters, you are usually quietly asked to move on if caught. There is also a risk of physical danger, such as; rotting stairs, mould, asbestos particles and squatters.

The chances of accidents occurring in these unsafe locations are increasing as more photographers are getting into urban decay photography.

Loftus Tram Sheds
Loftus Tram sheds, NSW

Abandoned buildings, ghostly towns, derelict amusement parks – there seems to be a never-ending fascination with such modern decay. 

O'Neills Amusement Park
Abandoned amusement park, NSW
 Amusement Park
Abandoned chair ride, NSW

Chilean born photographer Camilo José Vergara, a famous street photographer, began photographing urban and decayed sites in USA in the 1970’s.  He compiled several books documenting his works which encouraged many others to follow and take up this form of photography. 

Abandoned Igloo Hotel
Alaska’s abandoned spooky Igloo Hotel

Old rusty cars, dust-covered abandoned furniture, dilapidated buildings reeking of forgotten memories are not traditional subject matters photographers tend to lean towards, however, many feel the irresistible urge to purposefully seek them out and document them.

Many abandoned site can be legally accessed with officially guided tours. These places that have been made safe and managed for tourism.

Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
Cell in Eastern State Penitentiary
Typical cell, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
Barbers chair Eastern State Penitentiary
Original barber chair, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia closed in 1971. It is now a museum for guided tours. Considered to be one of the most haunted places in USA, with its forbidding high stone walls, crumbling corridors and bare cells that once housed thousands of hardcore criminals, such as, Al Capone.

During its 142 years of operation it inmates were subjected to madness, disease, murder, harsh torture and frequent suicides.

St Johns Orphanage for boys
St Johns Orphanage for boys
St Johns Orphanage for boys, NSW

St Johns Orphanage for boys opened in 1912, and closed in 1978. During its 66 years of operation 2000 boys were homed here. Its was run by the Sisters of Mercy who provided a home and education to needy boys.

Class room St Johns Orphanage for boys
Class room, St Johns Orphanage
St Johns Orphanage for boys
Inside St Johns Orphanage
Mittagong Maltings
Mittagong Maltings

This building was established by the Malting Company of New South Wales in 1899. It produced malted barley, an essential ingredient of beer. In 1905, it was bought by Tooth and Co who expanded the plants capacity to three malting buildings. The buildings ran a full production until they were extensively damaged by fire in 1942. Following repairs, they reopened in 1953. Another fire occurred in 1969, and malthouse 1 was closed permanently. Malthouse 2 and 3 continued producing until 1980, when and another fire burnt out the silo and roof. It was then closed permanently and put up for sale in 1981. In 2019, it was resold to developers for $6.5m.

Inside Mittagong Maltings
Mittagong Maltings
Mittagong Maltings
Mittagong Maltings

As shown in the malting images above, graffiti artists seem to also be drawn to abandoned buildings.

I began my photographic fascination with the ‘old and abandoned’ after being with a few fellow photographers who were into this kind of photography. To this day, I still photograph abandoned areas when I stumble across them, I don’t actively go out in search of them, and I never enter them alone for safety reasons. I also don’t break in, but any open window or open door is an invitation to explore with caution!

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