Abandoned & Forgotten: A 15-Year Urban Exploration Photo Project

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All images by Jan Stel. Used with permission.

Photographer Jan Stel was born in the Netherlands in 1970, and describes himself as a self-taught fine art photographer and Photoshop artist. We discovered his work on Behance, and found that in his youth, he used to spray graffiti murals in the suburbs of Amsterdam and at home he painted detailed drawings and realistic illustrations. The analogue photo gear from his father was the start of his interest for photography, and inspired him to develop his own creative style. Jan Stel’s photography is made with pure natural light. No flashlights or studio-lamps are used.

Nor does Jan use HDR or other automatic presets. “Photoshop is used to brush the photographed brackets into a sort of light painting, similar in a way old doka-masters and painters do.” says Jan. “The works are toned to extend the atmosphere.”

He started the Abandoned & Forgotten project back in 1998, and it has taken him to many giant structures like craft businesses. Here he finds things like old machinery, beaten up cars, and he’s even explored castles.

We talked to Jan a bit about this form of urban exploration.

Phoblographer: What got you into doing urban exploring work like this?

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Jan: I have always had a fascination with nature and the absence of human kind, the purity of what our daily society is hiding. Abandoned locations have something magical, a hidden world left by men but still full of life and history. The daily quietness and the eerie ghost like feeling stirs my imagination to explore. In combination with some healthy adrenaline I became in my own world totally focussed on the beauty to capture. Also the fascination on how mother earth is taking back what once belonged to her and over the years and how that will transform a location more and more. Every season and year will show a different kind of play.

Phoblographer: Have you ever encountered any sort of danger or have really cool/crazy stories from your explorations?

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Jan: On my explorations I have never been into real danger that’s because I take precaution and watch any warning signs around. After 15 years of exploration I can say my eyes, ears and sense are experienced in noticing when something is not safe. This could be in potential dangers about the decline of buildings like, rotten staircases and wood, small but also giant holes in the floors, mold and toxic chemicals which are often not sealed and protected anymore. But also nasty junkies, not so friendly guardian dogs, ruthless copper thieves who break everything just to get copper but also risks I will take to get that specific unique and beautiful photograph from an awkward angle. Standing with one leg on a small edge or with one arm hanging from the railing of a concrete wall–luckily I have never fell down!

Surrounded with high hills and located in a small village I was searching for the remains of an abandoned textile factory in Spain. Knowing that the authorities have safety concerns, liability issues if one gets hurt, and delays due to other people needing to be involved, I thought it better to ask forgiveness if caught rather than to wait for permission. The outside was not at all revealing the surprisingly beauty inside, with my face pressed up against the broken glass I took a look inside. What I found was well worth the risk, and off I went. This old family factory had a very ancient, authentic atmosphere. Its charm lay frozen in time, from the fibers still threaded in abandoned looms, old business documents spread around the office area, to dust-covered support machinery and old wooden work tables with rusty tools hanging on the cupboards. Much to my delight, the history found was totally intact with no signs of graffiti, theft or trashing. Because the factory was as it had been left so many years ago a true snap shot in time, it made me realize that this was my favorite exploration so far. After many hours of exploring I went out unseen, leaving everything untouched and with respect, but with a beautiful historic reminder to save. Hopefully signs for the recovery into a museum will happen soon, so more interested people will enjoy the forgotten history of textile fabrication.

“Standing with one leg on a small edge or with one arm hanging from the railing of a concrete wall–luckily I have never fell down!”

Phoblographer: What gear do you use?

Jan: It’s not always about the gear one is using but what the eyes see and can capture in the right moment waiting for perfect light and a sharp eye for perspective and composition. I have used equipment like the Panasonic LX3 (The Abandoned Buses), sometimes analogue slides but most of the time the Canon 5D Mark II with the tilt/shift lenses TS-E 17mm and 24mm. Expensive but perfect glass and balanced for technical perfection and maximum details. Soon I will go on the road with the Sony a7RII. The old Canon can’t hold up with the dynamic range and longer shutter times on low ISO like the Sony.

Phoblographer: What inspires you to compose images in the way that you do?

Jan: What inspires me most is light, in how it plays seek and hide with shadow over structures revealing or hiding the beauty what’s in front of me. And if the subject has an interesting history to show, a simply but stunning perspective to show or for example an eye-catching detail to capture my focus is there. It’s all about feel and being one with the location and waiting for the right moment. Therefore I mostly prefer to explore on my own, then all senses are sharp and focused. With no distractions from others! Seeing and enjoying the full potential of a location that so much has to show. It often will happen that I have to return more than once because there where distractions, the light was not good due to bad weather or there where other folks roaming around.

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