Archived entries for photography

george georgiou – invisible: london

Not seen work this good for a long time. Just so brilliant.

Ben Cooper interview

Ben Cooper is a prolific Scottish urbex and hinterland explorer who uses dramatic photography to record the hidden, the misplaced and the out-of-bounds. His images celebrate not just buildings and interiors, but also the people who built them, worked there.

Heritage/history documenting off-piste is often illicit, yet forms a sometimes moving record of the forgotten fortunes of people working within heavy manufacturing, transport, power, security and healthcare infrastructures – usually invisible to us, the take-it-for-granted consumer-citizen.

this sort of thing needs certain physical / personal skills, with many risks on-site – we’re not wanting to bore you with the obvious… but don’t try any of the following at home.

finnieston crane and squinty bridge, glasgow © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: Ben, you’ve become well-known in urbex circles for both the physical/technical audacity of your exploits and the quality of your photographs – what was it that first brought you to urbex?

BC: I got into it pretty much by accident – as a kid, like most kids, I liked exploring. Later, as a student, I briefly got interested in tracing the old rail lines of Glasgow on my bike. That really fizzled out until I got interested in photography and was running out of interesting places to photograph – I can’t remember if it was St. Peter’s Seminary, Cardross or Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens Station [FZA - both classic west of scotland explores] that I went to first, but it was really just a new place to photograph. The interest in urbex itself came later.

There are a bunch of attractions. It’s still fun to just create good photographs, of things and places most people don’t get to see. It’s also satisfying to document locations that are disappearing – I love getting emails from former workers who have memories of what a place was like. Then there’s the fun of sneaking about, being a bit naughty and playing at being a ninja.

FZA: The Milk Crate Gang, from Glasgow, were one of the first organised groups that did post-industrial urbex in Scotland – how would you describe the community now?

BC: Coincidentally, my mother-in-law was a founding member of the Milk Crate Gang – I didn’t know this until after i got into urbex. In Scotland, the community is sadly quite fragmented – there aren’t really all that many of us who explore and publish, there are some more who explore alone or in small groups but don’t share with any wider community. I’m not sure why this is – there is, I think, some distrust amongst older explorers of new upstarts (like me) and there is also quite a bit of paranoia about explorers from elsewhere coming to “our” best places.

FZA: The community at 28DL is very tight-knit, for obvious reasons. Should Urbex remain secretive, or do you think there’s a case for it being more widely-recognised?

BC: Much of urbex has to remain secret for it to work – we rely on the owners of the places we explore not knowing or not caring that we get in. If there is publicity, especially negative publicity (and rarely is it otherwise) then the opportunities to explore close down. We are also in a reasonably good position legally at the moment. Explorers in other countries have to break the law to explore – we do not, and it would be a great pity if publicity led to the government taking more notice.

I don’t see any need for it to be more widely recognised – there are mostly negative outcomes from increased public awareness of urbex. There is actually a strong argument for not making any urbex public – having no public forums like 28DL, no public pictures on Flickr, nothing. Running completely under the radar makes quite a lot of sense – until you think about why we do this, and this is different for everyone. For me, it’s important to record and document places for others to see, both now and in the future.

So there has to be, for me, a balance between keeping secrets and making explorations public.

Urbex really doesn’t have one community, there are lots of overlapping groups – trust within the groups is very important, however. Trust that someone won’t publicise a place and get it locked down, trust that someone you tell about a great new place won’t go there and smash it up. We also have a duty to other people – I have had many useful tips from company employees, and more than once a friendly security guard has turned a blind eye or even given me an unofficial tour, and I don’t want to get anyone fired.

scottish & newcastle breweries, edinburgh © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: You do both urban and hinterland explores – which do you prefer?

BC: I like both. There’s something a bit Through-The-Looking-Glass about exploring in the city, being only a sign or a hoarding away from normal people, or being above the night-time streets watching people and police cars pass by below. However it’s also nice to go for a quiet, relaxed stroll somewhere where you don’t need to be so alert all the time.

FZA: What is your approach to being challenged on explores? And how do you prepare? (mapping, GPS, etc)

BC: Honesty is almost always the best policy. If I’m challenged by security, I explain that I’m just a nosy photographer, not there to steal anything – having a polite manner and photographic equipment helps with that. On some live sites, it’s possible to pretend to be there with permission – a fluorescent vest and a confident attitude will get you very far, sometimes.

I have a master list of prospective sites on Google Earth – that’s a great tool for locating places, and StreetView helps a lot. Then it depends on the site – some are do-able on a first visit, some need several visits at different times of the day or week to work out how to do them. On the largest sites – Bishopton, Ardeer, places like that – I use GPS mapping on my phone to find places I’ve pre-marked as interesting buildings to visit.

FZA: What’s been your scariest moment…

BC: I think probably something high up – climbing the [glasgow] Armadillo was a rush, even though I was using safety gear for most of the climb. It was just so exposed, with a long slide and a drop to certain death on every side, and with the worry of the police helicopter nearby.

But there have been plenty of times where I’ve done something which I wouldn’t want to have to repeat too many times – getting into Methil Power Station, with it’s climb up rotten rusty gantries, then a squeeze through a narrow window 20m over solid concrete would be a good example.

FZA: …and your most surprising moment.

BC: Finding something epic where I don’t expect it – going for a stroll in Bishopton and finding a massive explosives factory was pretty surprising. I stopped off on the way past to somewhere else, just for a quick look as I was there, and ended up spending three days exploring every corner of the massive site.

Then I got a visit from the police, which was surprising in a different way…

FZA: Name one place worldwide you’d like to explore.

BC: The Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral would be a pretty cool place to see – not on an official tour, of course, but getting into the parts no-one is meant to see.

FZA: The breakdown of the UK’s manufacturing base has opened up a new window on people’s past working lives for us. But what do you think urbex will focus on in years to come, chronicling our lifetimes?

BC: The UK’s manufacturing base is not dead yet – there’s still quite a few possibilities there. Sometime soon, there’s going to be a new generation of old power plants to explore – that’ll be fun, though the nuclear ones might be tricky. With the seeming short lifespan of many modern buildings, there should also be some old modern architecture to explore as well, and if Scotland becomes independent there will be a lot of redundant military sites to see!

FZA: Following on from this, urbex tends to focus on the remnants, the visible. I’ve always thought that council refuse dumps might provide an unexplored palimpsest into the past – what do you think a test bore into an old refuse landfill site might reveal? What would you like to find?

BC: Interesting, that’s a more high-tech way than the usual tip digging technique, using a shovel! The tips near old hospitals often have wonderful collections of old glassware and crockery. I’m not sure a normal landfill would have much I’d like to find, though. I’d like to find the stacks of shipyard plans and models that must have gone up in smoke when yards closed down, the working models of cranes and bridges that were lost, things like that.

FZA: On the photography side, we’re impressed by your lightingcamera work – what is your basic camera / flash / photoshop / panorama setup?

BC: There is nothing particularly special about my setup – I now use a full-frame camera, a Sony A900. I’ve always liked wide angle lenses for urbex photography, so I mostly use a Sigma 12-24mm, but I use a 50/1.4 prime quite often as well.

I very rarely use flash – really only in situations where light painting would be difficult or impossible, and then it’s just a flashgun mounted on the camera. Light painting with a selection of torches produces far better results in almost every situation, I’ve found.

I shoot in RAW, and post-processing is done in Lightroom, with Photomatix for HDR sometimes – I’m not a fan of overdone HDR, but there are situations where it’s useful to most accurately record a location.

For panoramas, I use a Nodal Ninja tripod head, fitted to my urbex tripod – a Manfrotto Modo tripod that I’ve hacked about to take a different head and other fittings. I use Hugin or Autopano Pro to stitch the images.

zaha hadid’s riverside museum, glasgow © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: One last question – how did you get into Zaha Hadid’s Glasgow Riverside museum, mid-construction? I’m a big fan of Hadid, so those images are amazing for me.

BC: The Riverside was remarkably simple the first couple of times – climb through a hole in the hoardings, then through one of the holes where a door or window hadn’t been fitted yet. The last time, it was a bit trickier but not much. Building sites can be surprisingly easy as the buildings aren’t completely finished, and with so many workers from different companies working on-site someone often forgets to lock every door! The images were embargoed on request by GCC so as not to spoil the surprise for visitors on opening day.

FZA: Many thanks Ben for taking time to share your experiences. The Milk Crate Gang lives on!

ben cooper : transient places website
ben cooper : explosive scotland book

Tim Hetherington

Sad to hear that Vanity Fair photojournalist Tim Hetherington has been killed in Misrata, Libya, along with fellow photographer Chris Hondros.

Tim’s short film Diary was featured on fromztoa back in January 2011. Recently he became well-known for the acclaimed film on Afghanistan, Restrepo, with Sebastian Junger.

Coincidentally, yesterday I looked at the obituary of Penny Tweedie – another committed and decent conflict photojournalist. The last paragraph struck me as odd, yet understandable – the obit writers seemed to imply that she committed suicide due to despair – perhaps not just at the lack of attention to her abilities and insight as she got older, but I believe the lack of change her work had made – the fact is, photography can’t change the world, otherwise the work of war photographers would long ago have shamed us into stopping man’s inhumanity to man.

Individuals much like Tim and Penny will continue to risk their lives to tell the stories we need to hear – but it seems that every single conflict returns the same result, the same images – nothing changes. Until we cease flicking through sunday supplements / channel hop / absorbing the party or religious line, and actually pay attention to what’s being communicated, war will never stop and the recorders’ work will continue to be in vain, simply another glossy spread in a murdoch magazine.

We all live under the same sky, there’s actually no need for conflict at all. We have everything we need on this planet, we don’t need aliens to come and rescue us. The evil in this world consists mostly of those humans in thrall to greed and power and dogma at the expense of their own citizens and neighbours. It’s not naive to say that, it really is that simple. Whatever NATO attempts to do in Libya, as in Afghanistan, and with the best of intentions, with informed and dedicated soldiers who do take their actions seriously to avoid civilian casualties, is bound to fail. You can’t be kind with violence.

If there is any use to facebook and twitter, then surely a global campaign to call a truce between all of us, everywhere, to just stop the murder, shouldn’t be too difficult?

tim hetherington

As an antidote to Vivian Maier’s now-inevitable museumification and sainthood amongst the moma-classes, this is Tim Hetherington’s short film Diary. I have a feeling Vivian would approve the bump to earth, amidst the fetishisation of her work. Best watched fullscreen.

vivian maier

I realise now the rest of the world knew about this discovery last year.

Excuse my ignorance. Vivian Maier is officially posthumously big in street photography. Diane Arbus big. Undiscovered in her 40-year Chicago lifetime.

To the young local historian who found her work, busy scanning tens of thousands of unseen rolleiflex frames – and other collectors – it’s the tip of the iceberg. Words fail me, she is brilliant. And somewhat tragic, sad to say: not suicide but ignomious in talented poverty and ignored isolated old age – frightening: as Morrissey says, “shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to” – in Maier’s case it was simply not showing her work to others (reasons now unknown – got a good guess though why she sidestepped the fame/gallery system – ironically this simply gives her even more kudos to those who will inevitably in the coming years be in ultimate control of the “assets”).

Gallery at New York Times’ LENS
John Maloof’s blog
Jeff Goldstein’s blog

from Z to A is a scotland-based psychogeography and urban topography magazine featuring creative, critical, playful urban journeys

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