Against the recent glut of so-called “ruin porn” on the net, the work of Dutch photographer Hans Van Vrouwerf stands out, with its particular capturing of the atmosphere and detail in the abandoned interiors he gains access to (often illegally, hence their anonymity) – witness the perfect taster image he supplied for our School’s Out issue. uncube asked him about his practice and what started his fascination with dereliction.
When did you first start taking an interest in shooting architectural ruins and why?
It started when I was really young, entering abandoned buildings near where I lived. But it took years before this interest came back – when I decided to test a new camera locally at an old factory. After I got home I started searching for more empty or derelict buildings on the internet and a complete new photographic world unveiled itself.
Is it the architecture or atmosphere that attracts you to these places?
Actually both. The best way to show these old derelict buildings is with a great atmosphere. This can differ from heavy shadows at a specific time of day, to the right sky.
Some of the images are quite macabre. What do you think is the magic in ruins that attracts people?
Yes, some can be really shocking. Each place has their own story: that’s often what attracts people. But it is also the “hidden” that fascinates people with places like this.
Tell us about some of the places you’ve photographed. How did you find them? How did you gain access?
Where to start, I’ve had too many adventures! Google Earth is usually my best friend in finding abandoned places. Old news articles and such like. Access is usually via an open door or broken window. If it’s closed I do not enter but I never ask if I can take pictures: I just do it. This sometimes results in a conflict with the law. I once got caught by two police officers in Belgium with bulletproof vests and hands on their guns. But after explaining what I was doing, they just wished me good luck and told me to keep safe and left again.
It’s a challenge sometimes shooting by myself, but I would rather feel alone in these places. I’ve visited old factories where it looked like you could just press a button and they’d start working again… Or houses and hospitals where everything is still there.
Tell me the story of the extraordinary house where all the plates and things are still on the tables and chairs as if the owners just stepped outside two hundred years ago and never came back...is that real?
Yes, that's real. Sometimes the residents pass away and the houses have no one left to look after them. If a house becomes abandoned in this way, but has been paid for, then sometimes time stands still and nature takes over…
Your images are quite like film sets in a way – very atmospheric and rather gothicly romantic. How much do you stage your images and work with Photoshop to enhance atmosphere?
Staging is a no go for me… I find the places like this and photograph them just the way they are. I use Lightroom and Macphun software for my photos, and sometimes use Photoshop for complex perspective corrections. All I tend to do is underexpose a bit, find the light and bring out details. I may take out some colour here and there, but that’s it.
Ruin porn is big click bait on the internet – where do you show your images mainly and what kind of feedback do you get?
I show some images on 500px and Flickr but I haven’t the time to maintain them both. So I try to update my website once in a while with the shots I like best. Yes, ruin porn seems to be a big thing on the ‘net. But I hope and think that my style is different from others’ because I use the light to my advantage instead of using overdone tone mapped HDR [High Dynamic Range] images… I really hate those. Making your dynamic range wider is ok… but destroying it in post processing is a no go for me.
Is there a type or particular period you prefer when hunting for derelict buildings?
My favourites are theatres, churches or monasteries and small houses … actually I like them all!
Is there one place you’d really like to get into and photograph if you could?
The town of Pripyat in the Ukraine, abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster, is on the list for a long while now… but so is Hashima Island in Japan, a place which was used in the movie Skyfall.
Where next? Do you, or would you shoot new buildings? Or occupied buildings?
Currently I’m shooting whatever I can get my hands on! But my love is for architecture, buildings and interiors. It doesn’t matter if they’re occupied or abandoned.