9 Questions on UrbEx

A fellow I know who is writing an MFA thesis on urban exploration sent me a 9 question survey on UrbEx. I thought a few of you might find both the questions and answers interesting. I’d be especially interested to hear YOUR answers to #5 and #9 in the comments section.

1. Did you have any early (childhood) experiences with abandoned spaces, or any memories that informed your curiosity for them?

Yes. I remember doing a steep hike with family along the Southern California coast to the site of a shipwreck. I returned to the site with friends in high school and revisited again in college. I’d forgotten about this experience until recently, when I happened across some old footage of the shipwreck online.

2. What was your first experience like? Were you alone or with others? Was it an impulsive trip or very planned out?

In high school I explored abandoned seacoast fortifications and bunkers in Southern California with friends. There was little or no planning — just teenagers driving around and goofing off. During college I explored the seacoast fortifications and bunkers of the Bay Area with friends. Again these were freewheeling adventures.

3. Briefly describe your political beliefs.

Voting on local issues is important, everything else is futile. I’m registered Green. I don’t read the paper. I don’t watch the news. These habits make my life much more peaceful.

4. Describe any powerful emotions you have experienced while on an urban expedition.

Depending on the location, the feelings can range from adrenaline charged excitement (holy crap look at this place!, did I hear footsteps?), to a calm, meditative observation (the quiet, my heartbeat, the stars).

5. Do you follow architectural practice in general?

What I photograph most often are buildings and vehicles. I enjoy studying architecture where I live and when I travel. This interest ranges anywhere from the modest 1920′s Craftsman homes in my neighborhood to a Julia Morgan designed building across town. From a ruined trailer park in one part of the desert, to a John Lautner home in another.

6. What do you think about the way the general population can access public, semipublic, commercial, infrastructural, and historical sites? Is everything as it should be?

Yes — it is what it is. A successful exploration could be anything from walking in to a public place, to getting permission, gray areas, or outright trespassing. Assessing the best methodology for accessing a site is just part of the work.

7. Do you make photographs when you go on expeditions? What do you look for in making these photos?

The experience of being at an interesting site under the moonlight is amazing. Photographs are a way to share the experience. The images are meant to document the location, with the added intangible mystery of place expressed through long, moonlit exposures.

8. Have any perilous encounters made you reconsider going back out on expeditions?

Nothing has made me want to stop. A few experiences have helped define the limits of my preferred access methodologies. I usually make better images if I’m not looking over my shoulder all the time.

9. What do you think of the newfound trendiness or UrbEx? Does it affect the way you think about or conduct the practice?

Is it trendy now, or does it just have a different name? I don’t use the term UrbEx. I prefer using terms like abandoned places and ruins. I don’t relate to a lot of the writing I’ve seen that uses the term UrbEx. The growth of UrbEx hasn’t affected my practice, but will hopefully increase the audience for my photography and photography workshops.

12 thoughts on “9 Questions on UrbEx”

  1. Interesting interview. Here’s my answers to those questions…

    #5
    I don’t “follow” architecture persay. I often stumble upon articles and information about architects or buildings and will read it if it piques my interest, but I don’t follow it too closely. I’d like to be more persistent on my research, but to be honest, I am plenty satisfied with driving past a building that catches my eye and doing a little research afterwards.

    #9
    I do think “Urbex” has become trendy, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t jump into it when it was already trendy. I heard about the abandoned hospital in San Francisco’s Presidio and decided to do some research about it, during which I discovered the UER.ca website for the first time. I didn’t even know what “urban exploration” was, but based on what I saw on the site, I could tell it was quickly becoming a fad. The trendiness hasn’t really affected my practice either, but I do find that numerous visitors to a site can potentially make it more risky, trashed, scrapped, tagged, etc. In that sense, I guess it does affect what locations I like to shoot and where I go.

    1. Explore now, more research later makes sense. Online info about abandoned places is a double edged sword — it can help you find locations, and also lead to them being overrun.

  2. I’d like to add a reply for #1, as well.

    #1
    I grew up in sight of the Danvers State Hospital (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danvers_State_Hospital), an East Coast “insane asylum” built to the famous Kirkbride Plan. We always wondered what it was like up there. By the time I was old enough to really appreciate the building, and wise enough to know how to work my way in there, it had become inaccessible. It has recently gone condo and is now known as Avalon.

    #5
    I don’t follow architectural schools and trends because my brain just doesn’t work that way. I also have a hard time grasping schools, styles and trends in music, photography, painting and even politics. But I am interested in researching this information after I visit a site.

    #9
    I have mixed feelings about the recent trendiness of UrbEx. On one hand, everyone else should have the same right to explore abandoned buildings like I did. On the other hand, I’ve always held these sites in reverence and I hate to see them vandalized and worn down by the increased visitor traffic, mostly due to the internet and social networking sites. For example, the first few times that I photographed Byron Hot Springs five years ago, I avoided tagging my Flickr photographs with the name of the building, but I was happy to tell anyone (legitimate) via private email. Recently, the place has been so over-run with visitors that I’m not sure it makes any difference because there are so many other avenues to find out about the place. Now there’s even a book published about it. Last year I even came across someone who was teaching a model photography workshop at BHS. The next thing you’ll know, the place will show up on someone’s CD cover.

    Oh, yeah. And I hate the phrase “UrbEx”. It sounds like some manufactured celebrity, like “JayLo” or “BrAngelina”

    1. 1. In sight of Danvers — that’s intense!
      5. Another vote for explore now, research later.
      9. Between urbex sites, flickr, websites, books, etc., Byron is no secret. Again, having locations online is a double edged sword. And yeah, I have a tough time with the term, too. Sounds like a genre that a top 40 radio station might play.

  3. Wow, Danvers.

    5
    Yep, I’m a total obsessive about mid-century modernism and Googie. There’s something in the irony of decrepit modernism that pushes all my buttons. My architecture background is very well rounded for someone that didn’t study it in college. I was fascinated by architecture at a very early age. I knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was when I was 9 or 10. I spent several years as a toy designer creating city-scape playsets for toy cars. It’s important for me.

    9
    I don’t mind that UE (or whatever you want to call it) is becoming popularized, or more importantly, legitimatized. I want to ride that bleeding edge of newfound consciousness about it until my photography is splashed on the walls of galleries and museums. America is so young compared to the rest of the world and we’ve traditionally been obsessed with the idea that everything needs to be shiny and new, but that’s changing as we decline as a society. Now, with our current societal and pop-culture obsession with apocalypse porn, the time is ripe for the American masses to understand the aesthetics of our ruins in the same way the Europeans have always understood theirs. Don’t fight it, exploit it.

    1. 9. I guess we have to wait until all the 20-something UrbEx kids are the gallery owners and museum curators of tomorrow. I’m just not sure the people that are into UrbEx will be the gallery owners and museum curators of tomorrow. I know there are a few notable exceptions, such as the fellow who sent me these questions.

      1. I already see it happening. The curators that got me in the show in NYC last fall were in their late 20s. I agree, 10 more years and it will be everywhere.

        I don’t think you have to be an explorer to appreciate the ruin aesthetic. Like I said earlier, it’s about the changing American consciousness regarding its ruins. There are a lot of armchair explorers out there, enjoying the books, web stories and imagery without ever getting their shoes dirty. What we do is finally becoming acceptable and understood by a more mainstream audience.

        The guy that sent these questions is in his 40s, BTW.

  4. Another place where I diverge from common thought on the subject: I think talking about/showing sites online doesn’t actually have much of an effect on them. As Andy says, today they get trashed over the course of a few years. But exploring places in the 1970s and 80s, the locations were usually wrecked in a few years back then too. It’s local kids going there to party, who end up tagging and wrecking the place. It’s just always been that way, it just used to travel by word of mouth instead of teh internets. Maybe the web increases foot traffic a bit, but the people who find out about places online and travel to visit them doing the “urbex thing” are not the ones damaging them. It just doesn’t fit the M.O. Inevitably, it’s the stupid local kids that ruin it.

    I admit, the proliferation of the copper thieves and salvagers is much worse now than it was back in the 70′s-90s, but that’s just a product of the times. There are stories of whole western ghost towns being dismantled and stolen for salvage in the 1930s too.

    1. Byron is an interesting case study to test this logic. If the web didn’t exist, it would only be local kids going out there. But it’s unclear who trashed the place (including tearing down the walls near the kitchen!). Most people I know who photograph abandoned places are reverent about leaving only footprints, and taking only pictures. Speculating that it’s always local juvenile delinquents wrecking places makes sense, but it’s hard to know for sure.

      1. Think it through. Why would people make the effort to travel from all over CA just to trash the place? It doesn’t add up.

        I’ve been to BHS about 8 times. I’ve run into others exploring it almost every time I’ve been there. And almost every time they are doing what we do: not necessarily photographing, but just visiting and soaking in the vibe. I’ve talked to most of them when we bump into each other and they all seem awestruck and respectful of the place. If I can find a location and visit it without damaging it, why can’t these other people be allowed to?

        The one exception was when I ran into a pack of tweaker teenagers that were kicking the shit out of everything. They surrounded and tried to intimidate me. Luckily they had seen my BHS photography and they eased up on me. Before I was allowed to slip away I was lead to understand that they were locals because they were complaining how “their” place was so overrun by tourists.

        That’s just one example, but the logic behind it makes total sense for everyplace else too.

        The paranoia about revealing locations on the web is just that: paranoia.

  5. I’m the guy in question who Joe cited as doing this thesis research and presenting the questionnaire. I hadn’t checked back on the comments and want to say to you all–Wow, thank you for extending this conversation even further! These thoughts are extremely helpful. It is easy to find conversation online about UrbEx practice, but I’m looking more into *meaning, and that’s what the questionnaire was trying to prompt. So thank you again for this; you’ve clearly thought about the meaning. (And thanks Troy for introducing me to Joe!)

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