My first urban explore and Irma’s file

Some people call it trespassing, other call it urban exploring: making pictures in abandoned buildings. I’m always fascinated by the often erie appearance of empty houses. It makes you wonder why the people left, their stories and the past.

Abandoned Soviet era spa
Abandoned Soviet era spa

During my trip to Georgia I came across and abandoned Soviet era spa at the Black Sea coast. I couldn’t resist to take a peek together with my youngest daughter and we went past the rusty fence. The main building was a gloomy hotel. What used to be the lobby, was filled with rubble.

Inside the main building
Inside the main building

On the second floor was the former restaurant. From the outside you could still see the tables and chairs. When I walked up the round stairs, I was spotted by someone who might have been a caretaker and was asked to leave. Being shooed away by angry men is also part of urban exploring I guess.

I decided to check out the nearby pool. Back in the 1970’s the pool was probably luxurious. I could imagine Communist Party members swimming back and forth, while in the adjoining rooms people got their massages and other spa treatments. Nowadays the pool is filled with mess and instead of the typical chlorine smell of a pool, the odour of pee and dung is abundant.

The pool
The pool
The former massage parlour?
The former massage parlour?

In one of the rooms that could have been an office, there were scraps of destroyed files and one forgotten file (number 566) on a former employee that was still intact. A certain Irma from Kobuleti worked here in 1988 as a cleaner. From the pages ‘AHKETA’ (questionnaire in English) we learnt that she was a member of the Communist youth movement (Komsomol), that her mother was an agronomist and her father a kolchoznik. She and her family had never traveled abroad. Irma was 20 the she got the job, although she had an education as a nurse.

Irma’s file

We left her file were we found it and left the crumbling pool before dark. The next day we went back and rescued Irma’s file from oblivion.

Kill your darlings and the art of selecting the right image

One of my first contact sheets made in 2000
One of my first contact sheets ever, made somewhere in 2000.

In the past photographers viewed their contact sheets and marked the images that were good enough to have a closer look at. From this point the selection was narrowed down to the desired iconic image and/or the lucky shot. Contact sheets always revealed that out of a roll of 36 exposures only a few photos worked out or sometimes not at all.

Now in the digital age, the first selection mechanism is the delete button. Mistakes are gone in the blink of an eye and will never be seen by another pair of eyes than yours. The exposures that pull through this carnage are not yet sure to survive the digital shredder. After another review round on a computer screen only a happy few remain. Well that is to say, there a ways more ‘keepers’ than in the age of contact sheets, since a gazillion more images fit on a memory card than on good old film.

When you are left with a smaller selection, tough choices have to be made. Which one has the ‘decisive moment’ to quote Henri Cartier-Bresson. Which ones have the best light, which ones have the right emotion, or which ones out of a bad batch are good enough to optimize (this also happens to you, don’t be afraid to admit it ;-).

After many conflicts with yourself, and sometimes bothering family members, you’ll end up with a few photos that will make it to the light of day. When you see the fruits of your work in printed form or on someone’s wall, you know that self-censorship pays off…

The joy of shooting film

On the market in Kabuleti, Georgia
Market in Kabuleti (Georgia). The gentleman is selling – among other things – home made chacha. Chacha is a strong liquior made of grapes varying in strength from 40% to – let’s say – 80%.

“The year is 2016 AD. Film is entirely replaced by digital. Well, not entirely.. One small village of film photographers still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the digital legionnaires who garrison the fortified camps of Nikonium, Canonum, Panasonicum and Pentaxum”.

So far my adaptation of Asterix and friends. A whole new generation of photographers is around grown up with digital photography. I consider myself a very late convert. My photograpy school was from 2000 to 2003. Back then, digital cameras where not a serious option for the quality conscious photographer. Until 2014, I only used medium format film for my non-commissioned work. The assignments were done with a Nikon D90 that I never liked. All of that changed when I bought in September 2014 an entry level Canon DSLR for family snaps. This small gem could deliver amazing results. Soon better glass was bought and a model with more features replaced the entry-level DSLR. This dramatically changed my workflow and opened a different world.

So here I am, working with the technology that I considered not the real thing until recently and loving it. So what am I going to do with my beloved Rolleiflex 3.5f, Kiev 60 and the other great analog equipment that I have? They look at me sadly and feel abandoned when I take out the new Canon instead of them for a photo session .

From a quality point of view, the film versus digital discussion is no longer relevant. We are at the point that a full frame sensor can deliver the same resolution as the 35 mm film counterpart. In theory, film has a higher resolution than the common prosumer digital sensors. However between lab figures and field results, there are differences.

From personal experience: when I scan my medium format black and white negatives on a 14,000 Euro Flextight scanner at the best possible resolution, the result is a very large file and a lot of grain. A digital file of the same scene taken with a 35mm sensor has more detail, less grain/noise and wins here quality wise.

So what’s the point of using film, apart from nostalgia? The answer is simple, use what ever suits your needs and mood. Like a painter uses different brushes, paint and techniques, photographers too can use the strengths of both the analog and digital medium.

I shoot digital, when colorful landscapes or wildlife with lots of detail are my aim. When I am after “the look” of the golden era of black and white photojournalism, I use Kodak Tri-X 400 film and D76 developer.

I return to the small village of film photographers occasionally…

Found photo of miners in Cripple Creek

Cripple Creek miners
Cripple Creek miners

When you are at a thrift store, you sometimes see abandoned photo albums, family portraits, and wedding pictures from long ago. The reasons why these images are found there can be multiple, like the previous owner doesn’t have family to look after these when these have passed away. So there it is, someone’s past without any context: vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.

I always feel a bit shy to go through these abandoned pictures, I feel myself looking into other peoples lives without their consent. Voyeurism you may call it. On the other hand, I consider it a good thing that these pictures end up at a thrift store and not in a landfill or incinerator so that the labor of taking and development them was not for nothing.

Some people go through these abandoned pictures to find a new and unknown Vivian Mayer. The story of a collection of negatives and prints owned by an elderly lady that was bought at an auction by a publisher is well known: the publisher made loads of money and the great photos where saved from oblivion. I’m not hunting to find an undiscovered Mayer, but occasionally I find a photograph interesting enough to take it home.

I found this picture of miners at a thrift store/crafts center in Denver, Colorado. On the picture are six miners. From the look of their clothes, the tools and the look and feel of the photographic paper, this picture was taken around the turn of the 20th century. At the back of the picture it is written: “Hard rock crew Probably Cripple Creek, David Owens Dainell, jr in foreground”.

In the Cripple Creek region were many gold mines. Working conditions where harsh. Mining accidents were very common and when you where not killed by falling rock, the dust from the mining gave you a lethal lung disease. The hydraulic drill was nick-named a widow maker because of the dust particles that where released while using it. Protective masks where not common at the time.

In 1890 gold was discovered in Cripple Creek and by 1900 there were over 500 mines operating in the district. The great wealth coming out of the mines turned Cripple Creek into a bustling and prosperous city of over 35,000 people. 75 Saloons and numerous brothels parted miners from their pay. Like most mining boomtowns, Cripple Creek’s mining days were over by World War Two and the population of Cripple Creek shrunk dramatically to ghost town proportions. Cripple Creek has been reborn as a tourist and gambling center in the 1990’s.

More than 100 years later a random person finds an abandoned picture, takes it home to Amsterdam and writes a blog about it. Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.

Big trees!

The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), is earth’s tallest tree. When you look carefully in the middle of the picture, you see a tiny deer. This dear was about 4 feet (1.20 m) high, so you can imagine the size of these ancient trees.

Sunlight shining through redwood trees at the Muir Woods National Monument. The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), is earth’s tallest tree. When you look carefully in the middle of the picture, you see a tiny deer. This dear was about 4 feet (1.20 m) high, so you can imagine the size of these ancient trees. It felt like a trip to the dinosaur age.

Back in 2001

Melkhandel Nieuw Leven in 2001
Melkhandel Nieuw Leven in 2001

Back in 2001, I was doing a project on keepers of small shops for my photo course. Last week ‘Melkhandel Nieuw Leven’ on Prinsengracht closed after 70 years. As a memory, I gave the owner Jan van Beek this picture that I made 14 years ago. He absolutely loves it. Jan is going to enjoy his retirement. The shop that looks like a museum will be renovated and used as an apartment.