I’ve just listened to a great interview on the Candid Frame podcast with Will Jacks. Over the past few years, he has been photographing the goings on in a Mississipi ‘Juke Joint’ a type of bar peculiar to that area of America. he goes every week, has befriended the owner and clientele, and has gained their trust and friendship. This has resulted in some fantastic, inciteful images. In the interview, he describes how the bar is popular with visiting photographers although most are tourists who are just passing through.
Jacks notes that, Juke Bars were previously the subject of a book by Birney Imes in the 1980’s, although he describes the images as more architectural, with many being long exposures on a view camera, resulting in the people being blurred out. Jacks made the distinction (not in a negative way) that his photos were ‘not about the space’.
Two things struck me during this interview. The first was a re-iteration of the benefit that returning to a place or subject regularly enables you to see things in more depth. The nature of this depends on the subject of course – a social documentary project would be different to a landscape of course, but there is merit in both examples as you repeatedly see new things, new light, subtle changes, new faces, different moods, etc.
Personally, I rarely go back to places (apart from my railway photography), usually due to time, but also due to the nature of urbex – access comes and goes, buildings get demolished or refurbished, etc. However, I do know people who have been multiple times to places like Whittingham Asylum, Pyestock, etc, so I guess it depends on how close you are to a place, and how much it inspires or moves you. Alan Clogwyn regularly posts on his blog photos from the Welsh slate quarries near where he lives, places I love to explore but are several hours drive away for me.
A photograph of an empty space?
The other point was ‘it’s not about the space’. In urbex, it’s all about the space, as the people and the activities have all gone. On the other hand, what makes urbex photographs interesting, and a challenge to take, is how to shoot the space. It’s easy to take pictures of empty space. Anyone can do that. But in isolation (or for that matter, in repetition), it can get boring. However, it can be necessary as part of the story as an establishing shot – the vast empty space of somewhere like an abandoned steel mill or derelict car factory, or the weed ridden wasteland where something once stood can tell a story, however it may need a caption or an accompanying description. An empty space may be bereft of contents, but isn’t necessarily bereft of interest if it makes the viewer pasue, think, and look a little closer.
However, I’ve always found it more satisfying to take (and look at), photographs of the details, and the stuff that’s left behind. These tell more of a story than an empty space ever will. I’ve written before on how I approach things based on the Life formula – landscapes to put the place into context and it’s place in the surrounding environment, interior shots (sometimes of empty spaces), and then, if possible, the smaller stuff – signs, machines, paperwork, artifacts, etc. It’s almost big, medium, small. I don’t go with a checklist as such, but it’s a bit like the supposed rule of thirds – it becomes intuitive in situations where it’s beneficial to use it.
The large establishing shot – the mills position in the landscape.
The medium internal shot – showing something of what’s left, and also the mills function
The smaller details – this payslip had been left behind by one of the operatives.