I am not often a fan of “urban exploration” (ugh … “Urbex”) photography, but I tend to think that’s more because of the culture than the photography itself. Which, admittedly, seems like a conflict of interest, because half my work is staged in similar areas, but anyway, coming to a semblance of a point: Sticky Sounds, musician, photographer and fellow H.P. Lovecraft fan made a connection with respect to urban exploration photography I hadn’t put together myself for some reason – “fear of the unknown connected to the thrill of supernatural horror“.
Somehow this sentence and the Lovecraft connection transformed a lot of Sticky’s photos for me, but what I appreciated more was the context he gave his work (to follow), specifically in the exploration of Manchester’s industrial past:
“The industrial revolution brought great wealth to the city, but hand in hand with this came unparalleled poverty and squalor for a large part of the population. These people were nothing more than cattle for the greater good. A new underclass destined to live in a new kind of hell. The fires of this hell burned and smouldered in the red bricks as smoke billowed constantly from the dark satanic mills. The unbroken, monotonous rumbling of the looms filled the air and mingled with the heat of the steam. The city was a giant machine and its inhabitants reduced to units of labour, small expendable parts of the whole. Not so much a city as an assault on the senses. Overcrowding was chronic with whole families living in single rooms, and little or no sewage works for most of the nineteenth century. The only refuge that most of the poor would ever know from the hardships of their everyday life was found in alcohol. Their anger often expressed itself through violent crime, from domestic violence between husband and with to the youth gangs, or ‘scuttlers’ who ran amok on Manchester’s streets. When you look at these past extremes of the city it raises the question ‘what does it mean to have a life?’ These people remain in Manchester today, in it’s red bricks and the canals that run like veins through the city. As do all inhabitants who come afterwards, we are all Manchester, all serving the beast.” (from http://stickysoundsdotnet.wordpress.com/manchester/ )
Needless to say I quite enjoy the tying of a supernatural horror to the concept of the monstrousness that is the Industrial Revolution. In a coincidental parallelism, I started reading Metro 2033 today, which discusses a similar black unknown in the monstrous labyrinth that exists below the Moscow Metro, unmapped tunnels left over from the equivalent industrial revolution, long forgotten, another source of that preternatural fear of the dark. Speculation in the novel exists as to the true origin and function of these tunnels, hinting at the specter of menace they represent in present-day.
Lovecraft is replete with temples, tunnels, labyrinths, dungeons, catacombs and other fell abysms (yes, Lovecraft has a plural for abyss) throughout his works. My personal fave is the catacomb-slash-necromancy-lab depicted in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, complete with two-foot square, forty-feet deep square hole prisons for the screaming undead. Delightful. I digress. Excessively.
While I enjoy, in my own work, the obvious connections between black horrible things buried deep within the earth and the monsters of history waiting to catch us unawares, for some reason I’ve never drawn a link to urban exploration work and these themes. I think Sticky Sound’s photos have started to suggest something in that regard, but the effectiveness of such is the specificity and context that exists outside of the pure aesthetics which “Urbex” is often preoccupied – technical aesthetic being a persistent preoccupation in many photography sub-cultures. Contextualizing the work with the “hidden” history of Manchester really transforms these images on a narrative scale.
One thing that confuses me about urban-exploration is how all these child’s dolls end up in industrial buildings. This photo is “made” by the rows of lit windows in the black distance:
This was a slightly more unusual found object:
And a few other favourites that treaded on those supernatural aspects: