Run-down places have been fascinating me ever since I can remember. Combined with industrial architecture, they are my favorite subject matter for photography. Within this post, I am going to show you the results of my 2021 fall / winter project: abandoned, ordinary and sometimes ugly places I found in my greater neighborhood in Hannover, Germany. All in all I have picked a selection of 18 images I want you to see.
For some time, I have established a personal ritual. During the pre-Christmas period, I grab two of my favorite photo books and study them thoroughly. These books are the ones published by New York-based artist Jan Staller, Frontier New York and On Planet Earth. Both of them contain photographs (mainly) in the square format: photos of industrial areas, construction and demolition sites, elevated highways, military facilities and so on. All of the sites are presented as more or less shabby corners. I find these pictures greatly inspiring and they never fail to push me outside. One reviewer of Planet Earth describes Staller’s photographs very pointedly: as if we would encounter the ruined landscapes of our planet like aliens.
Think about that: what an appealing task, to cut the beauty out of the ugly – or even more demanding – out of the ordinary! Oftentimes, some diamonds lie just ahead of you. Like the owl, which the sculptor simply has to carve out the big wooden block. So let the objects in front of you interact with each other or separate them; include things to your frame or push them out – just by changing your position and distance. It’s a concert and you’ll be the composer!
How to Find Run-Down Places
Let me first explain to you what I mean with run-down places. I understand this term in a broader sense. For me, these are not only abandoned houses or disused structures. I also count places that don’t look new or shiny (anymore). Places that are not meant to please people, places where you normally would not stay longer than necessary. Maybe it sounds contradictory, but for me this definition also includes emerging places not yet ready to accommodate people, like construction sites.
In general, I discover the most interesting subjects in areas with industrial facilities or other utilitarian buildings. Without the purpose to represent or sell, there is a good chance to find some filthy corners. Sometimes I use Google Maps to scout conveniently from my desk, and sometimes I just ride my bicycle through the streets. However, it helps me to have a specific destination in mind, to get me started in the first place. Interestingly, random opportunities pop up quite often – and they often make my day, not the planned destinations.
Some Words on the Role of Light and Weather
When taking photographs, there are normally plenty of weather and light conditions to deal with. Some of them I personally like a lot, others occasionally – and some I almost always disregard. For run-down places, I really prefer what is normally referred to as “bad weather”. I’ll give a short overview in the following section.
Well… Back then when I started photography a decade ago, I thought sunshine was the only suitable condition to take proper pictures. Oh, this has changed completely! Today, direct sunlight with its accompanying harsh shadows puts me off most of the time. I think this is strongly connected to the subject matter. Intense sun fits a Mediterranean seaport or any place in southern California – but does it fit a town in northern Germany? This often feels like a postcard cliché to me. Of course, every rule has its exceptions and you have to make things work for you. But I haven’t really made peace with sunshine yet.
In general my favorite weather to shoot. Overcast skies render objects soberly and unpretentiously – and forget any pronounced interplay between light and shadows. Especially during the winter months, after the trees have lost their leaves and most colors are absent, gray skies convey a subtle melancholy. To shoot under an overcast sky is also probably the easiest way as the light (almost) doesn’t change with time. And as there are no backlit subjects, you can carelessly point your camera in any direction. Given these conditions, I often burn through one or even two films during a single trip.
Overcast Sky and Rain
Difficult. You have to protect your camera – and yourself – against the water, droplets can cause blurry spots and therefore ruin your picture (if the effect is not intended). In most circumstances, I really dislike the stark contrast between the rather bright sky and the dark wet ground. Up to now, I have shot only a handful of rain pictures I’m satisfied with. Fortunately, this changes after sunset: wet surfaces will then reflect all kinds of light sources (street lamps, neon signs etc.), adding an extra punch to the image. Sometimes, this seems to me as a shabby corner would apply some lipstick and eye gloss.
Dusk and Dawn
Fantastic. These rather short-lasting transition phases provide a whole bunch of different nuances. Particularly the point when daylight and artificial lights are perfectly balanced often leads to great photographs. With my rather slow camera and complicated process, I obtain at best two or three shots at dusk or dawn. (Anecdote: I remember an occasion on which I took a photograph of a steel bridge running above a water meadow. As I was really unsure whether the photograph would turn out or not, I decided to take a second shot. But meanwhile the light had faded so quickly that the meter already read an exposure time of 30 min. For the first shot I just finished, the meter reading had been 4 min!)
Fortunately, there are two twilight events each single day (at least where I live) – so plenty of opportunities during the year. But depending on the annual cycle, the twilight can force you to get up very early or stay up long, respectively.
A whole different world, very rewarding – but also very demanding. Depending on the camera settings and the abundance of light sources, exposures can consume a lot of time (for instance, read Bill’s experiences). My longest one took me about an hour, but some crazy star trail chasers invest up to eight hours into a single shot. Because film (or any other light sensitive device) constantly accumulates photons during the exposure, there is one point when it sees more than your eyes can do. Surprises granted!
Special Conditions (Fog, Snow)
Where I live, conditions like fog or snow rarely occur. In some years, only a few days are affected – if any. Unfortunately, such conditions are often difficult to foresee and also rather short-lived. If they occur, they occur mostly at the wrong time (when I have to work or when I’m still sleeping, for instance). But if I’m able to use fog or snow in my favor, this turns out extremely cool.
Run-Down Places: More Images
For my run-down places project, I used a Hasselblad ArcBody exclusively. This is a small and lightweight view camera that allows perspective correction; it employs the popular Hasselblad V backs, which provide 12 frames on a 120 film. I own a 45mm as well as a 35mm lens for this camera, which are pretty wide with regard to medium format. Handy, as these lenses help me to fit almost any subject into the frame.
All images were shot on Fuji Pro 400H color negative film. I have chosen Pro 400H as my standard material: it is a rather fast film and has good reciprocity characteristics, which I really appreciate for my dusk and night-time shots. Furthermore, it is a welcome change to the prevailing Kodak Portra, at least for me. As we all know, Fuji sadly discontinued this film recently. Therefore I had stocked up a bit, currently there are still sitting five 5-packs in my freezer. This amount should provide exactly 300 further frames – enough to keep me busy for at least two winters.
Depending on the conditions, exposure times ranged from half a second up to ten minutes. Therefore, the use of a tripod was inevitable. (And the ArcBody is not meant be used handheld.)
I commissioned Carmencita Film Lab in Spain with developing and scanning the films. On request, they scan the images including the black frame borders, which I really appreciate!
And Even More Images of Shabby Corners
Closing Thoughts on my Run-Down Places Project
I pretty much enjoyed my recent winter project. Getting out when the weather is adverse and the light scarce nicely complements the coziness of my apartment. There is a huge satisfaction for me to drive around in search of run-down places, capture some shots during a rainy dusk and then cycling back home with a hot tea or coffee in mind. Apart from that, bad weather often results in interesting photographs. Because these conditions let otherwise boring places shine and emphasize their “run-downiness”.
I think that most of the places I explored are kinda universal. They could be found in the same or similar way in numerous other (German) cities. With the slight exception of the water tank (image #12), I wouldn’t recognize any of the structures as a typical Hannover sight. So let me finally invite you to discover your own city’s shabby corners!
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30 thoughts on “Photographing Run-Down Places – By Christian Schroeder”
Congratulations on these pictures, they really convey that feeling you’re infusing.
As an architecture photographer and film enthusiast I loved the corrected verticals which almost anyone uses in film photography nowadays.
Thanks for sharing, it’s really inspiring to see this beauty in such utilitarian places, makes you want to go out and shoot and avoid excuses like you have no cool locations.
Hi Pablo, thanks for your kind words! The corrected verticals are a curse and a blessing – I can’t live without them anymore.
Always great to read you, Christian! Excellent photos as usual and interesting perspectives in more than one sense.
Take care and regards
Martin in Austria
Thanks a lot, Martin!
Really good photos and nice read, as usual Chris.
Always appreciate your feedback!
These are really nice, contemplative and appealing pictures of fairly un-heroic locations. Elevated further by the text!
Thank you for posting the project.
Hi Wiley, I’m glad you enjoyed my article.
Very much in the spirit of the Bechers – many thanks !
Thank you, too! I really admire the Bechers for sticking to black-and-white film during their whole career, reducing their subjects to their pure shape and form. I think I couldn’t do without the niceties of colors.
Fascinating, I love your frames! And, like you, I like bad weather because it gives you a different perspective than the normal sunshine pictures that most people take. Also, puddles on the road surface help break up the usual expanse of gray asphalt or concrete. Come visit me sometime and I can show you some even more run-down places to photograph.
Hi Andrew, someday I will actually visit you and discover your North American habitats – you ask me each time I post something here. The US seem to offer so much more compared to Europe: vaster landscapes, larger buildings, more vintage cars / motels / neon signs and so on. I often ask myself how I could deal with such a plethora of opportunities.
plethora of opportunities – bring a lot of film and plan on not eating or sleeping too often!
Hasselblad gives good pictures! Love these.
I can’t disagree – however, other cameras also deliver. 🙂
Beautiful and inspiring photos and great article! I hope you’re considering publishing a book?
Sehr interessante Bilder von diesen Orten !
Und deine Beschreibung macht die Sache erst recht spannend.
Am besten gefallen mir die Regenreflexe auf dem letzten Bild mit dem Holzmast.
Gut auch das Abendfoto von dem Parkplatz am Supermarkt.
Ich danke dir! Die Bilder in der Dämmerung finde ich auch oft am interessantesten – aber sie machen leider die meiste Arbeit. Nun ja, ohne Fleiß kein Preis. 🙂
Hi Sonny, thanks for your comment! Actually, I already made a selection of images for a possible book project. As I haven’t published a book before, I think I have to deal with various other aspects now – layout and typography, finding a suitable print shop, exploring potential sales channels…
So interesting this story appeared today. Yesterday as I drove my wife home from a doctor visit the traffic mandated an alternate route on back streets. I commented that I should get some of the deserted buildings and residences photographed before they go away as new construction encroaches on their locations. You have such a beautiful way with this work and I greatly admire your results. I photographed a brand new movie theatre at dusk recently. It was very busy for the three months it was open before covid took its life. Someones dream and life savings is now abandoned. Not just old buildings in deserted areas need remembering. My results weren’t as good as yours so I must try again.
Thanks for the beautiful work and insightful words. Your previous posts have been my inspiration.
Hi Bill, I’m really happy with your feedback – with all these posts, my primary goal is to inspire other people. For my part, I get so much inspiration from other members of the community – whether it’s a blog post, a YouTube channel or an Instagram feed. Without sharing results and the ambition to further improve (refine / alter / re-invent) my work, I probably wouldn’t stick to this hobby for long.
I suppose there will be a lot more dead facilities soon due to Covid, there are already so many of them now. On the human level, I really regret the failed businesses and the personal fates behind them. As you pointed out, in each case somebody’s dreams and plans are shattered.
Nice work. I love the sharpness and clarity of the images. I like formal compositions as you do. Unfortunately I have no way to apply tilt/shift with my medium format camera. I wonder how much of that could be done in post with the scans. Q-how do you carry the camera and tripod on a bicycle? Prost!
Hi Gary, thanks! Before investing in the Hasselblad ArcBody system, I considered some alternatives. For instance, there is a shift lens for the Pentax 67 (75mm, which I think is too narrow for most architectural subjects), or the exotic and expensive Plaubel Proshift 69. With the FlexBody, there is a second option made by Hasselblad, although the FlexBody isn’t as specialized as the ArcBody. And there is also a shift adapter for the Hasselblad V system, but this thing is rare and expensive – and it should only be useful in combination with the 40mm lens (as the shift adapter acts also a 1.4x tele converter).
I usually carry the camera inside a large Lowepro rucksack with a small and light tripod attached to the outside of the rucksack. As the tripod with the relatively heavy geared head would be out of balance, I have to disassemble the tripod and head for cycling and mount the head with a strap at the rucksack’s side. Not overly convenient, but it works for me.
Gary, I can only give my opinion of my personal experience on perspective correction in post. My day job is digital darkroom tech and I am able to get very acceptable results in post with film scan originals. My personal background is low grain film stocks and my results have been personally satisfying. I have actually shot cityscapes with the camera tilted up for an amazing sky then brought the verticals back to correct orientation in post. Not just for a single frame but for a stitched panoramic also. I also have a Canon 35 tilt& shift_FD mount that I have shot with since the early 1980’s. I am always amazed at what is possible with this lens. I have even shot multi-frame panoramas by shifting the lens up and down then carefully panning and repeating the up/down process. My most elaborate attempt with this method produced a 10 frame panorama, shot on Velvia 50, and then stitched in post. I believe that if I scanned the originals on a high end drum type scanner the final image could easily be 10 feet wide with no loss of image detail. Nikon also makes tilt&shift lenses for older film cameras.
These are magnificent treatments of the subject matter and I have spent a lot of time looking at them. The corrected perspective is essential to the beauty of these photos. For square 120 there used to be Arax and Hartblei tilt shift lenses based on a 45mm Mir lens that had a long back focus. They had adapters for Mamiya, Pentax and other mf cameras. Maybe they turn up on eBay.
If I want to do this I use Sony a7 series. Using a wide lens and levelling the camera so the building is in upper part of frame helps. Then straighten verticals in Gimp and crop. It looks fairly convincing but you lose resolution and I am sure results are much inferior to the Hassie Arc system.
Hi Kevin, thanks for your feedback – glad you enjoyed the images!
With the Hasselblad ArcBody system, a major novelty for me was the different workflow compared to other medium format or 35mm cameras, even equipped with shift lenses. As a view camera, the ArcBody allows you to either view / compose your image or to take it (this won’t surprise our fellow large format photographers). The assembling and disassembling part of the process takes a fair amount of time – therefore, my 35mm Canon SLR with the shift lens feels like a point-and-shoot camera in comparison. I enjoy both types of workflow and don’t think one is in general superior over the other. But when in a hurry, I definitely prefer the 35mm system – handheld, if necessary. 🙂
It’s a terrific set but I had a laugh a little at the disconnect between what my American brain expected when it saw the headline “Run-down Places” and what that phrase seems to mean in a German context. Your “run-down” places all looks so clean, safe and well-manicured; I was expecting collapsed roofs, broken glass and piles of garbage.
Well – I know what you mean. I watch the videos of the young film YouTubers from California all the time (Jason, for instance); they often show some places in a really, really bad state. Some time ago, I ventured inside the few truly decrepit locations here in Hannover (including collapsed roofs, graffiti all over the walls etc.). However, this has changed – nowadays I don’t want to hurt myself or get caught and fined. And as exciting as these places are, it’s difficult for me to concentrate on taking photos under such conditions. I miss them, though.
Cool that you liked my series!
Wow! A Jan Staller fan. Me too. I even have one of his large prints on my wall. Well done pictures.
So cool! Which one do you have?