Matt Emmett captures the fragile beauty of formerly inhabited settings in his creative photographs of abandoned locations. His extraordinary photo collection, Forgotten Heritage, was compiled over the course of five years as he searched for and captured locations that had fallen into obscurity. Emmett makes abandoned objects into works of art.
In addition to other magazines, the daring photographer, who was named “Arcaid Architectural Photographer of the Year” in 2016, has had work published in Architectural Digest. His photography closely investigates each architectural ghost while exploring desolate locations throughout Europe.
His 2016 book Forgotten Heritage compiles some of his favorite sites and the tales associated with them. Emmett’s photographs of crumbling houses and abandoned mines have established him as one of the top photographers in the field. Recently, we got the opportunity to speak with him briefly about his work, the inspiration for his photographs of abandoned locations, and his dream site. For our exclusive interview, keep reading.
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What about deserted places initially piqued your interest, and how did this relate to your photography?
My introduction to the realm of the abandoned came about entirely by chance! A friend requested me to give him some hands-on tips on his just purchased DSLR at the beginning of 2012 and suggested that we go somewhere with a specific objective to practice the techniques. He chose a long-deserted industrial site for the second class, which just so happened to be a half-hour drive from our home.
I was quite apprehensive about going there and going into a place that we weren’t supposed to be, but after seeing other photographers’ photos who had already gone inside on the internet, I felt obliged to at least try it. So that’s how I ended up at the fence line of a former facility for testing jet engines around6 in the morning in early February, my heart racing.
How did you find that experience?
We were met with visuals right out of a science fiction movie as we entered the enormous hangar-like facilities; underground metallic tunnels where the engines were tested in supersonic airflow, enormous turbine rooms, and workshops with bizarre technology all around. At this point, I made a decision on the route my career as a photographer would take. Since then, I’ve become addicted to the rush of unearthing, preserving, and bringing intriguing history into people’s homes.
I believe that my tendency to reflect back and introspectively is what makes me so attached to it. This activity will enlighten and satisfy you if you have any interest in history, architecture, or industrial processes, or just appreciate peeking into locations that are normally off-limits.
Your website’s name, “Forgotten Heritage” was chosen with great thought. What does heritage mean to you, and why do you believe it should be preserved?
Forgotten Heritage is the name I chose since it sums up the situation of the amazing locations I visit to produce the photographs perfectly. The first goal of the project was to just enjoy the thrill of discovery and the curiosity I felt while photographing these locations. People would comment on what a crucial and urgent need I was serving through my social media outlets as the collection of locations to be photographed grew.
With time, I’ve realized that the only sort of conservation that may frequently take place before a structure is developed or destroyed is preservation through visual recording. A publicly accessible record of these locales is made when the photos are uploaded to a website or social media page. Don’t get me wrong; I photograph these locations because I enjoy doing it, but a lot of the time, a helpful consequence results from the process as well.
I have documented a number of historically significant locations that have since been destroyed, leaving nothing for future generations to enjoy. Often, the photographic record produced by a committed community is all we have to remember them by.
How do you usually locate the locations you go to?
I’d want to say that this response is a little more inventive or intriguing, but the truth is that much of the information is supplied by other photographers who have visited the location or are familiar with its location. Sometimes finding places is as simple as driving about with your eyes open, or you can find places by studying them online, which can produce useful information.
Could you describe the kind of preparation you go through before a shoot?
Before visiting, it’s always a good idea to get a sense of the region and the location itself. Google Maps and Street View are excellent resources for this. It’s a good idea to be aware of good parking spots and to have a general notion of which way is ideal to approach a particular site.
In order to acquire a sense of each area and identify any gaps in the image where I might be able to shoot something differently or from a different viewpoint, I frequently research the place before visiting to see how other photographers have captured it. The apparent “money shots” will always be in demand, and it might be difficult to avoid taking them, but I believe that when a site has been photographed frequently, you need to find new ways to present it.
What is the most memorable location you have captured on camera, and why?
I could name quite a handful, but if I had to pick just one, it would be a sizable abandoned mental hospital that shut down in the 1980s. Just south of Turin, Italy is a small peaceful village that is dominated by a big expansive structure.
The interior is breathtakingly gorgeous, with cracked tile flooring, crumbling plasterwork, shuttered windows that let in magnificent filtered light, and many pieces of medical equipment still in use for treating the patient. The town outside slowly woke up while we were inside for a full five hours, and distant sounds of a moped or a church bell ringing every hour floated in through the windows. It had a wonderful vibe, which I believe is why many find these locations so compelling to shoot.
What particular technical challenges does this kind of photography present?
A tripod is necessary since you frequently shoot in dim and gloomy settings where long exposures are necessary to keep the camera stable. A camera and lens configuration that can keep out dust and moisture is especially important because the interiors of abandoned buildings are frequently humid and soiled. I only use Pentax equipment because of its excellent weather sealing and build quality, which makes it the best option for me. An additional portable light source, such as a torch with a broad beam of light, is frequently useful.
Obviously, I assume that in these kinds of locations, safety may be a concern. How do you usually protect yourself when approaching an abandoned place?
You need to be ready for environmental risks like shaky structures, rotten floors, hazardous items, glass, and nails underneath. Common sense is the most crucial tool to bring with you; if anything feels potentially unsafe, believe your gut and don’t do it.
What tips would you offer to someone who wants to start taking pictures of these kinds of locations?
Ask for permission to take pictures if you know whom to ask. If you are requested to leave a site, do so without causing any harm, and don’t do it alone. Don’t take anything away from the place as a souvenir, and generally treat everyone and everything with respect.
Create the first few images for a portfolio using images from these types of locations, and then utilize them to connect with other photographers. People are far more inclined to give information to you if they can tell that you are truly interested in the topic. Enjoy it, it’s an interesting photographic genre, and you’ll learn a lot from it.
Are there any places on your bucket list that you have yet to visit? What about it fascinates you?
Numerous Titan 1 ICBM nuclear launch sites are dispersed across different US states. a nuclear launch facility where a gate swings open in the ground and a big missile emerges from a subterranean silo on a plume of smoke The bunkers house the massive missile launch tubes along with residential quarters, command centers, radar tracking stations, and small power plants.
Since 1965, they have not been in use, and their interiors are dark and filled with dangerous substances. The visuals they produce are like something out of hell, entirely unique, and both fascinating and horrifying to witness, yet shooting inside of them necessitates portable lighting and specialized safety equipment. The kind of unique location I enjoy photographing!
What do you want readers to get out of your work?
that our unique built environment needs to be preserved. Building land is becoming an increasingly valuable resource, thus it’s critical to properly document a site before it vanishes forever. There are numerous once-significant locations that are bulldozed to make room for new buildings, but not every building can be repaired and maintained. Our future gets smaller the more we break ties with the past. Even if the only way we can keep a structure in our memories is through photographs, that is still valuable.