An exclusive interview with multi-award winning abandoned places photographer, Matt Emmett.
By Anya Beuzeval
Visiting and documenting the remains of abandoned industrial and historical sites could perhaps be deemed somewhat dangerous. Yet, Matt Emmett’s fascination with the beauty he finds among the decaying ruins is uplifting and exhibits these derelict sites for the living places they once were.
Matt Emmett is a multi-award-winning, abandoned and historic locations photographer who is best known for his Forgotten Heritage photography project. His aim? To rediscover our forgotten heritage through the mean of photographic storytelling. Subterranean Reservoir, the image that won Matt the award, Architectural Photographer of the Year in 2016, is part of a seven-year-long series of images created in atmospheric abandoned places. Emmett started the series after curiosity led him to join a friend at the National Gas Turbine Establishment back in 2012 and the result is captivating. He went on to win the first Historic Photographer of the Year Award in 2017 and continues to focus on lesser-known locations with fascinating stories to tell.
Though his subjects and locations differ hugely, the common thread is Emmett’s fascination with exploring derelict landscapes. His work takes him into environments that have long been forgotten allowing him to discover first-hand past architectural history.
I had the opportunity to talk to Matt about his inspiration, photography and camera gear. So, read on for our exclusive interview to discover the motivation behind Matt’s imagery and what exactly he carries with him in his photography kit.
How did you first develop an interest in photography? In other words, what was it that first influenced you to pick up a camera and begin shooting?
I was about to leave home on a year-long trip around India and Asia and my father thought it would be a good idea to get me a decent camera to document the journey. He took me out a few times before I left and taught some of the basics. I came home with about 80 rolls of Fujichrome Velvia to develop and once I had done (in stages because of the cost) the results surprised me, among the huge number of images were some really well-taken shots and a realised it was maybe something I had a natural ability for.
Who were the mentors/early influencers who helped to shape your practice?
I found the work of war photographer Philip Jones-Griffiths utterly fascinating and bought books of his work. As I progressed I came across the work of a Nat Geo photographer called Eric Lafforgue and was blown away with his portraits of different cultures and people around the world. I was also into caving as I got going with photography and the work of Robbie Shone was also a huge inspiration. The photography world is chock full of amazing talent and it’s all so different too.
Could you describe the ‘moment’, when you knew that photographing derelict landscapes was something you just had to do?
I had agreed to help a friend with his newly bought Pentax DSLR, he wanted to go somewhere with a specific focus for lesson two and he picked a large industrial site about a 30-minute drive from where we lived. I was unsure about going somewhere technically on private land but still totally abandoned. Curiosity got the better of me and we found ourselves at the National Gas Turbine Establishment back in 2012.
The site was a design and testing environment for military jet engines until its close down in 2001. Once inside I felt as though we had walked onto the set of a sci-fi film, it was like some vast alien spacecraft with strange machinery and subterranean tunnels with scary looking jet nozzles. At that moment I was hooked and my future photographic direction was sealed. The images from the site can be seen – here.
Your website states that your project, Forgotten Heritage, has taken you to places you could not have dreamed were even real before you began shooting, what’s the most memorable place you’ve visited?
Well most likely the jet engine site mentioned above which was so unique and I am unlikely to see anything like it ever again, it was demolished in 2013. But aside from that, I think it would likely be a large psychiatric hospital in northern Italy. We explored it as the small town beyond its walls woke up. Inside it was so quiet, all you heard were birds, the sounds of your feet against the tiled floors and the hourly clanging of a church bell or passing moped drifting in the shuttered windows. It had a truly magical atmosphere!
We’ve read that you consider experiencing these places to be of great privilege. But what motivates you to continue to take photographs of these abandoned structures?
They are very addictive places to experience, the atmosphere that hangs over them is very unusual and palpable. You are residing within a small pocket adrift in time whilst you are there it seems. The sights and sounds transport you to a place that is very different to the place you were in before you entered the location and this is the perfect territory for a photographer to capture images in an unhurried and thoughtful way. I think this really comes across in the end result and I (like many others) am in love with the beautiful and poignant imagery they can provide us with.
With a desire to explore and document the history of these desolate landscapes, are there any issues you face in regards to accessing them?
Well, you are not supposed to be there so there obviously is the legal aspect, to begin with. I believe strongly that provided I do no damage on gaining entry to a location which means there has to be an open window or doorway somewhere and that I do not remove anything I find from the location then I am not doing any harm. If you cross certain lines in the way you behave when you could land yourself in trouble.
You also have to be aware of environmental dangers and if something feels instinctive like it could be dangerous when you listen to that inner voice and don’t do it.
Your photography has taken you all around the world, what is one of the most eye-opening sites you’ve photographed?
Recently I took a trip to Hungary and we visited a huge abandoned power station that was used for the filming of several scenes in Blade Runner 2049. I love sci-fi films in general but I particularly enjoyed 2049. Being there in such an impressive space but one where I felt I was walking within the film itself was very powerful. The photographs that I created there are some of my favourite images I have taken in quite a while.
Can you tell us the story behind your favourite image?
One of my favourite images and also the image that won the award ‘Architectural Photographer of the Year 2016’ was taken in a cistern, a subterranean space used for the storage of drinking water below a busy part of London. It is a brick construction designed and built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1868. It was created using a 15-minute long exposure using ‘bulb mode’, which holds the shutter open for as long as you need. I lit the shot using a portable ’Scurion’ light source and used the pillars of the cistern to hide the light from the camera, shining the light sideways from a parallel brick row to illuminate each arched bay for six seconds before moving onto the next arch and repeating this process to the far end of the space. I then swapped over to the opposite brick row and lit the space from the other side all the way back to the camera. The cistern is entirely dark so despite the shutter being open and the camera sensor recording an image, nothing actually does record until you add light to the subject. Using a moving light source like this gradually builds up the light levels throughout the space.
From a technical viewpoint, how do you as a photographer make sure that the landscape you want to shoot looks the way you want it to? Do you come across any difficulties with this kind of photography?
It helps to look at the work of other photographers to gain some advance concept of how space works. If you have good spatial awareness then you can often ‘think’ your way around the space before you get there and plan the shoot. Look for gaps in the shots you have seen to try and find angles to help you create original shots. Spending a lot of time in one place also helps a lot. Being there during times when the sun is lower in the sky (dawn and sunset) can really add mood to the image. Architecture doesn’t move about or require direction like a model so you have time to get the images working as well as they can. Work on a tripod to achieve sharp images with a large depth of field and lots of detail.
When you’re out on a shoot, what do you typically take with you in your kit bag?
The main camera I use is a Pentax K1ii, it’s solid and very well built and also has some of the best damp and dust weather sealing going, making it perfect for the kinds of locations I shoot in. I use the following lenses with it: Pentax D-FA 15-30mm, Pentax D-FA 24-70mm and Pentax D-FA 70-200mm. They help me produce images that still excite me and I love working with them. I also take a Manfrotto 55 Carbon Tripod with me and for lighting 2 portable Scrurion lights.
Among all the gadgets that you own, is there one piece of equipment that you couldn’t live without?
I am going to have to mention two because they are both fantastically useful. My Pentax D FA 24-70mm lens. I think well over 60% of the images I shoot fall within those focal lengths. The lens is super sharp and also very well built and durable. The other item is my Scurion 1500 (lumens) light. Originally it was attached to a helmet and I was using it as a way to illuminate and navigate cave systems but since getting into photography I have realised how good they are as a portable light source. The wide beam setting throws a very bright, wide and even spread of white light across the subject, I have two of these lights now and they are so good at entirely lighting up the darkest environments.
In regards to memory, what type of card are you currently using to shoot your images with?
I use a mix of SD cards of varying brands and capacities, mostly 16gb through to 64GB cards. Shooting full frame in RAW format means these can fill up quite quickly.
I keep the images spread over multiple cards in case of failure, although this has only ever happened once in many years of shooting. I also make use of the Pentax’s dual card slots to record duplicate images for an extra layer of protection. Brand-wise, I tend to mostly use SanDisk.
What advice, if any, would you give to an amateur photographer who’s wanting to turn their passion for photography into a full-time career? Does having fancy equipment come into it?
High-end equipment does indeed play a role but not so much when you are starting out, when you are nearing the point you can begin working on paid projects then a high-end camera can make a big difference to the quality of your images. In the early years just getting out and shooting with whatever camera you own, finding out how it works and how to get the best out of it is enough. You will learn quickly this way, just by having fun and enjoying it. Hopefully, you will discover a niche or two that you feel you enjoy the most, as you progress it helps to focus more on one or two subjects and this can help you build a specialism and start to grow a reputation in that niche or genre.
Do lots of features with magazines and websites and invest time in social media to help get your images seen by as large an audience as possible. It annoys me when I see people talking down social media like it’s a fad or a waste of time, done correctly it can help you transform your dreams of wanting to grow from a just-for-fun shooter into someone who gets paid for what they shoot. Build a website as a showcase for your best work. Enter, win or place in international competitions and this will give you a big boost too. There are a lot of people out there all wanting to work in photography so it’s tough to stand out but if you persist and keep pushing yourself then you should make progress, be prepared to self promote your work and without shame for doing so, no-one else will do this for you!
Finally, what exactly are you wanting to say through your images?
That our historic built environment should be valued more, it is sometimes demolished or rebuilt with nothing saved or preserved from its before state. Once it is gone then it won’t be long before it has been forgotten entirely. Many of these places had important histories and connections to the lives of workers or inhabitants. They form part of the narrative of who we are. The more we erase of our past then the more we diminish our future. Not all places can be saved or preserved physically however and this is where the role of photographers comes in.
The dedication Matt shows to creating a series of images that embody a similar visual aesthetic that is of value, is clearly evident. Forgotten Heritage highlights the strong sense of history present in abandoned sites around the world and gives us all a small glimpse into past events.
He uses his large following of over 74K on Instagram as a platform to share new content and create a community of like-minded individuals.