Last updated on January 26th, 2019 at 05:48 am
Photographers have a unique way of making us see the world differently. Mathew Merrett is no exception. For the last 10 years he has been exploring and photographing sites few of us notice or pay attention to. His photographic passion is urban decay—abandoned buildings, factories, mines and institutions in states of decay and rot. Urban decay is part of the landscape of many cities around the globe; an outcome of de-industrialization, declining economies and changes in lifestyles. Although these areas seem inhospitable, this is where Merrett’s art comes to life. His fascinating, hauntingly beautiful photographs capture what was once vital and abundant before the redevelopment cycle erases them.
What inspired you to photograph urban decay and abandoned sites?
I have always had an interest in photographing architecture. I’m drawn to open spaces; train stations, airports, public concourses are all usually good examples of the kind of space I’m looking for. I found that in the months and years after 9/11 I was having a hard time shooting these spaces without being questioned by police or security. I once even had an anti-terrorism police unit knock on my door after shooting some colourful pipes through a fence at a factory. It turned out to be a chemical plant and some employees called the police. I ended up sharing my photos with the officers with no further follow-up. That incident led me to start shooting in more barren areas and I found it quite easy to gain access to abandoned facilities. Once inside, I was free to create my art yet always be faced with different challenges—from little or no light, to collapsing floors, to potential toxic chemicals and the possibility of security showing up.
In 2005 I formed a photography collective with five other like-minded photographers. We called ourselves DK Photo Group. We started shooting regularly in Ontario, Buffalo, Detroit, Philadelphia, Ohio and anywhere else buildings are left to die. We even ran our own gallery for a few years.
Where was your first urban decay photo shoot?
My first abandoned building was an old warehouse in Liberty Village in Toronto. The building had already been cleared out and access was easy—as it usually is. I just walked through an open door.
I found myself drawn to the vacuous space and wondered about its past use. I could feel the history within its walls. I still sell copies of this first image titled The Red Door. It was shot on a monopod with a 5MP point and shoot camera. I have since upgraded my gear!
What does urban decay mean to you?
To me, urban decay represents how a progressing society sometimes forgets its roots. It also represents economic troubles. In a good economy, old factories are turned into public spaces, or lofts, or art galleries! For example the Tate Modern in London.
What do you think urban decay means about our broader society?
To progress we have a choice to either tear down or reuse or if there is no economy to support either, these buildings are left to decay. If you look at a city like Toronto, you will find very few abandoned buildings. Sure, many have been torn down to make way for the condo boom of the past 10 years, but there are many that have been converted to lofts like Tiptop Tailors and some into amazing public spaces—Wychwood Barns and Don Valley Brickworks. Now compare that with Buffalo or Detroit and you have very different economics and a landscape full of derelict industrial ghosts.
People get used to a certain view as they drive or walk. That boarded up building by the water has always just been there and is considered off limits. A view inside these places can take you back to the roots of a city, to a time when cities were still being built. I think that if more people can see the beauty of what is behind the boards, they might be more inclined to try to save these buildings. This isn’t necessarily why I shoot these images, but it is an interesting aspect of my works effect.
There are many environmental messages that we can take away from your work. Do you consider yourself an environmental artist?
I certainly don’t consider myself an environmental photographer, but if people take something away from my work that makes them think about some sort of change, I see that as a good thing!
Your photographs document not only discarded buildings but in some cases a discarded way of life; abandoned mines that probably sustained communities, sanatoriums that haven’t been used for decades. Can you comment on the feeling you get when you enter these sites and how they juxtapose with our society today?
I have been fascinated with abandoned mines and I hope to travel to more sites soon. Abandoned mines create an interesting landscape that appears natural, but is entirely created by man. For the most part, open pit mines don’t get an opportunity to be reused except as a swimming hole or a driving range—Kingston, Ontario has one. Abandoned sanitariums and hospitals cause a much different feeling. You can’t help but feel the past human presence in these places. Worse, because it was usually involuntarily. It’s also disturbing to come across patient records and medical gear. In an abandoned medical building, I once came across a tiny dark room in the basement that was full of dental molds. It was very creepy!
In 2009 you traveled to the Ukraine to photograph the aftermath of Chernobyl. You went inside the exclusion zone to the abandoned city of Pripyat. Your photographs of this ghost city are rather haunting. What was this experience like?
Chernobyl had always been high on my list of ultimate destinations for decay. It’s the ultimate symbol of how human error can have a long-term devastating effect on the Earth. The result is the abandoned city of Pripyat. Nowhere in the world is there such a place. The award of an Ontario Arts Council grant made that dream a reality. My travel partner and I had two full days to photograph the city. It was a challenging shoot because we had such little time to find the story we wanted to tell, and we had no second chance!
What was most fascinating about visiting Pripyat?
We had the special opportunity to visit some nearby villagers that are essentially squatting in the homes that they built. They were evacuated after the disaster but returned after the fall of the Soviet Union. We met three ladies in their 80s who all live alone and mostly live off their land. The current government is allowing them to stay and live out their lives. That community has a sense of immunity to radiation—true or not it’s how they live.
Do you find there’s a difference between abandoned sites in Europe than in North America?
European site are mostly just older, but when it comes down to it, most buildings rot the same way and nature takes over.
How do you find your sites?
For the most part, research is done online. UER.ca [Urban Exploration Resource] has a database of locations around the world. I also sometimes just drive around, looking for interesting places to shoot.
I prefer to work alone, but it’s often safer to travel in a small group to some of the locations I enter. I usually find myself wandering alone to find my subject.
What is next on your list to photograph?
I would like to get back up to Sudbury to do more work in the nickel tailing fields there. There are also coal mines and salt mines in India that would be amazing to shoot.
Is there an abandoned site that you have your eye on?
Ontario is shutting down many coal-fired power plants. I have shot a few of these, but it would be great to get into one just after it shuts down. I have my eye on one.
What is the most satisfying part of your artistic process?
For me, the most satisfying part of the process is getting home from a shoot and going through my images and seeing something that is worthy to print. I have this inert need to share my work and a gallery show is my outlet for that.
Who do you make your art for?
I make my images for myself. I get a lot of enjoyment out of the entire process of making art. I do also enjoy sharing my work and it is the ultimate gesture when someone wants to hang one of my pieces in their home or office.
What do you hope that the audience takes away from your work?
If my work causes some sort of emotion in the viewer then I have reached my goal. Perhaps my images will evoke a sense of adventure in the viewer, where they may also want to peek past the fence of a boarded up building. In general though, I hope that the viewer appreciates that art can be found just about anywhere!
Mathew Merrett’s photography can be explored online at www.thephotomat.ca