The tall grass brushed calmly my hands as we hiked towards the expressionless castle resting on a hill in front of us. We had just passed a rusty gate without any of the usual signs of abandonment - old red signs saying something such as “défense d'entrer”. This universal message for urban explorers doesn’t need to be translated. I was sure we would encounter these signs in a moment, when we would reach the castle, “Chateau Helix” as it is known in the urbex circles.
We entered the silent, colossal castle. The coolness inside was refreshing, as yet another heatwave was punishing France and Europe. We made our way together to one of the staircases, the “helixes”. We stood in the dim hall feeling good about reaching our destination safely. Looking at the stairs, I knew Tanja would be busy with the photographs for a while or two. It was time for me to continue exploring the castle.
We have explored hundreds of abandoned places during our past years and I have come to understand that it is nearly impossible to comprehend the history of these places. The amount of events, people and stories is huge and makes the question “what was this place” too narrow. This castle, “Chateau Helix”, was built over 400 years ago and after that has seen many purposes and owners. The current state is just one phase in its history. What I could find about its history, was interesting though. Originally a medieval castle, which has been reconstructed many times, has been used as a bathhouse and as a center for drug addicts.
After walking the corridors, visiting the courtyard and many places which I now recognized from photos I’d previously seen on social media, I returned to Tanja who had now moved to take photos of the second staircase. She was busy with the camera and I decided to take a break and sat next to a cool wall. First, I enjoyed the silence and then, like in many places, I started paying attention to the sounds which were almost undetectable but still there. Small crackles coming within the old walls - rats. Outside, birds circled the castle and an armada of cicadas were making an uproar. This place was abandoned, but it most certainly wasn’t uninhabited, it was full of life.
After our visit, I found a picture of an old poster welcoming people to enjoy the baths in this castle. Maladies like sciatica and nervous problems could be treated here, “by the most picturesque railway in the world”, as the place is near the French Alps. The poster radiated life, health and pleasure. The transformation of this grand castle with untold history to a silent sanctuary for nature is an example of life itself - birth, joy, sorrow, and in the end, descent into oblivion.
K.P / 29.7.2019
During our last trip to Latvia, we visited multiple abandoned manor houses, ‘muizas’. The buildings varied a lot and we could only guess their past and many previous purposes. We found clues, but it would have been short-sighted to assume that these buildings only had a single purpose, given that many of them had hundreds of years of history behind them.
One type of a building resembled the Scandinavian ‘folk house’ which were used for mass gatherings, weddings and political meetings. For example, we visited one manor house in Latvia where we found an entrance like that of a movie theater. From the second floor we found label cards written in cyrillic letters, which had been used in library shelves to categorize books - a library then? Besides serving as a ‘culture house’, (‘kultūras nams’) little information could be gathered online to verify the true purpose of this particular building. Another one we visited had a collapsed theater stage and a large room with benches for the long-gone viewers of the shows. According to online sources, this building also had many purposes ranging from postal office to a school and to a ‘culture house’.
Clear signs of the Soviet occupation could be seen in many of the places we visited. A red star painted to the facade of a manor house, or a ceiling rosette with a hammer and sickle above a theater stage - the classical symbol representing proletarian solidarity. From a cabin of one of the manor houses we found an old soviet diploma dating back to 1956. The next one had a soviet army coat hanging next to the front door. Clearly many of the manor houses have soviet history, and from this era, information is hard to come by.
Architecture of the houses differed from a simple wooden ‘folk house’ to a majestic Neo-Gothic style castle. Many of the Neo-Gothic manor houses have been restored and serve as hotels or private residences. Still, some of the grander manor houses are decaying and share similar pasts acting as culture houses and schools. Some are sold to Russian oligarchs with high hopes, but left to rot. Some are on the market for everyone to see.
For us, it seemed that these buildings drift in time, and serve a purpose suitable for a particular era. A manor house might accommodate a rich nobleman and its theater stage and gardens are used for culture and celebration, just to give room for a political turmoil turning it into something useful for the masses - a post office or a school. Items left behind like clothes and documents are clues about the latest, or the last purpose of the building. Visiting these places has turned into a recreation, urban exploration. At least now someone cares about them.
K.P / 9.6.2019
We are not the right persons to write an obituary, but it certainly feels so. The train, often referred to as the “Orient Express” is now gone, only weeks after our visit there. It was not hard to find the train, nor visit it. It layed useless and forgotten in a train maintenance yard like an unclean looking beggar that nobody seems to notice on their way to work. This state of despair was far from the popularity before.
The nickname of the train is a bit misleading because this type 620 train never left Belgium and the original Orient Express line never linked Belgium to Paris-Istanbul-line. The name itself sparks imagination for stylish long distance train rides, but like often in urban exploration, the truth is lost and what remains are the wild guesses of the people looking at a photo.
We entered the train during a bleak, peaceful morning. As I stood in the train car, modern trains passed us in distance carrying people to work and to the ordinary chores of an ordinary day. I could see the faces of some travellers but their faces were stuck in glows coming from their smartphones. This old train had gone full stop, and that was the way we liked it.
Inside, once comfortable seats had lost most of their color and dark wood had gone pale, but we could still sense the original look. In the ceiling, futuristics plafonds lamps were intact and details in the walls were visible. The control room was in bad shape and one of the main windows had a rock-sized hole in it. Outside, the train was covered in deep brown rust, looking like a victim of an endless rain.
Although pale and dead, the train was brought to life in Tanjas photos. We tried the seats together, individually and together again. Mustard yellow and wood came back with details embedded in the walls. We ended up taking much more photos that we initially had thought. After our visit I spent some time searching for old photos of the train on the internet. I managed to find couple. Those strong yellow stripes in the bow were like new and the vehicle fitted to its surroundings. Now, it was a hunk of metal with forms from another dimension, another time. Style and form of 1939 stood in front of us and we didn’t know that we might just have been the last urban explorers to see it.
K.P / 26.2.2019
It was pouring water from the sky as we sat in our rental car, windows collecting fog. Front of us was a fancy-looking restaurant in which we had no business with our muddy boots and heavy jackets. It was dark and the only light was coming from a smartphone map which showed that we should go past the restaurant, couple hundred meters through the woods and we would be there. Back home, we had spent quite some time to find this particular chateau and making sure that it would still be there when we arrived. It was all looking good. This would be reconnaissance for tomorrow, the actual photography day, and it was good that it was dark. Off we went, to the rain.
The chateau was like a small iceberg, faceless form drifting without a destination. As we reached the building, we saw a small open door and entered without hesitation. Walls covered us from the rain, and from possible curious glances. We turned our flashlights on and realized that we were in the basement. Long corridor had doors both ways away from us but we had only one door in mind - the one leading upstairs. I stepped over some rusty kitchen junk thinking how I ended here, in rotting Belgian manor house in the middle of the night. It didn’t take us long to find small staircase to the upper floors. We entered the main floor through a narrow staircase and saw forms familiar to us from photos and videos, but now it was dark. There were no colours, no sad mood, only items in artificial light. Curtains, fireplaces, stools were there, just like we had imagined. Even the dusty menu of the restaurant was there. We had reached our destination.
Next day we came back, fully geared, ready.
We parked our car on the side of a muddy road, paved with litter, old boxes and plastic pipes. What a landfill. The road hadn’t seen a maintenance in decades. Next to us, we saw some unlucky fences which were not going to be hard to get over. Still, we had no information how to actually get in where we were going - to an old, abandoned cooling tower built in 1921. Luckily, we had some local help with us, to guide us. The tower had served a large coal plant nearby, but has been scheduled for a demolition. We’d seen dozens of pictures from inside the tower and they were undoubtedly impressive.
We reached the base of the tower and were guided to the place where we could climb inside the tower - not through the top but through a hole between ground and the standing deck. The climb was around 6 metres using old concrete covered planks as ladder. I was the first to go. I climbed with one of the back bags on, carrying multiple lenses and other gear with me. As I started to reach the standing deck, I realized that I wasn’t able to climb the last ladder with my back bag on because reaching the last grip required some turning and twisting. So back down I went. We all climbed up one after another and used a rope to haul all the gear up. That was much more convenient. There was a touch of discomfort when I looked down, but it was part of the fun.
The sight in the standing deck was worth the effort. Moss covered structures on the ground and magnificent tall tower reaching for the sky created an odd, symmetrical perspective. We estimated the height to be somewhere between 50 and 70 metres, so it did made us feel quite puny. As we talked, echoes followed us in the cool air. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only crew inside, but it was nice to have a small chat with some fellow explorers.
Photographs looked good, and we decided to lift the drone up in the air inside the tower. It had to be done inside the tower, because the thick concrete walls would most probably block or interfere with the control signal. Although the light wasn’t problem with the photos, ambient light was weak for the drone messing it’s safety sensors - so we had to be careful because the drone’s automatic safety features wouldn’t stop it if it would drift close to a wall. It would be a long fall. From the heights, the standing platform and the structure looked something of a scifi-movie. We smiled when we saw the image from our controller. After a while, we were done and it was time to head back outside.
The atmosphere inside the tower was unique and was strengthened by the climb. This visit reminded us of how important it is to mind our gear and prepare for challenging situations. Ropes, lights, good boots and gloves are essential, especially in industrial sites where metal and concrete are the dominant materials. There are always risks involved, but good gear can help to overcome them. Just walking in inside an abandoned building is a good way to start a day, but really making an effort to reach an unique spot makes your day. It is good to be careful, but being too careful makes you stay at home.
K.P / 3.1.2019
We get asked this question - a lot. Even though people wouldn’t be willing to actually go there, the location interests them. Maybe it’s because they, or we, want to attach a building to a larger set of memories or thoughts about a particular place, a country in most cases. In our project, our principle is not to reveal the locations and here we are going to tell why. No for an answer sounds rude and we try to smoothen things a bit usually, but no is a No. In many cases we refer to our values which are found here on our website, under the header ‘Explorers’.
Let’s look at an example: finding this blue staircase seen in the picture was a very time-consuming task for us. It took around one year before we got our hands on quality data about where it is. We used the internet, other photographers and other social media platforms to locate it. When we started, we didn’t even know in which country the place was! In the end, how we actually managed to do it, we don’t tell, but when we had the building on Google Earth, we started to plan our trip. For myself, this place was a dream come true, because I’ve seen many amazing photographs of it - I needed to do better. I felt little nervous because I didn’t have much experience photographing spiral-shaped staircases.
We booked our flights, rented a car, flew couple of hours and drove even more, but then there we were - on the spot we’d searched for so long. When we left home, we had no idea what was waiting for us. We might not even get inside. That insecurity comes with the job. This time we were lucky, there was a window open. I climbed in and did a quick tour to check if everything was ok inside. Then we hauled the gear in from the same window. It took us some effort, because it wasn’t exactly on the ground level.
It didn’t take long for me to find the spiral staircase but seeing it for the first time, I felt little disappointed. It wasn’t so nice as I had thought. I started with a test shot and only then I saw the possibilities of it. It actually looked amazing! We stayed inside for another two hours. The palace had other great rooms and staircases. Somehow, I got the sense that the place might soon be under renovation. It was time to head outside. This palace was the main reason for our trip, and now it was time to see the other potential abandoned places, but before continuing our trip, we still had some outside photos to take.
It turned out, that from outside the place was a challenge. It had one great tower and I knew that close-up the photo wouldn’t work without enormous distortion. Further, big trees and vegetation would cover the building. Luckily we had a drone and we started to search for a good spot to get it airborne. We packed our gear and drove couple of hundred meters to a clear area more suitable for take-off and landing of the drone. When in the air, through our handset we saw the palace surrounded by the colours of autumn.
Then we ran into trouble. A van approached and a man instructed us to land the drone and leave. We didn’t understand the local language, but I think he used some pretty harsh language. He did know some english: “Private!”. We apologized for the disturbance, packed quickly and drove away. This was a reminder that in many cases, abandoned places do have owners, and in most cases they do not like visitors, which they might get a lot because the availability of the information regarding the location of the places.
We were trespassers, although we have pretty high standards. We never really break in. If the window would have been closed, we would have just left. And this why we don’t reveal the locations of the places we visit - we don’t want to cause any trouble or harm for the potential owners or for the buildings themselves. Well-known abandoned places do get vandalized, and if there would be hundred people climbing in from that same window, someone would break something, or themselves.
T.P / 28.10.2018
It was surprising to understand that the grounds we were standing on, were so closely linked to the utopian history of the East Germany - The German Democratic Republic (GDR) which existed from 1949 to 1990. These barracks, garrisons and other military buildings were abandoned so recently, like was the idea for socialist East-Germany. The sites we visited had history surpassing this infamous era all the way to the German Imperial army. Still, the reason for their current state is because of the end of this era. The landscape was like in Estonia and Latvia, former soviet countries which had won their freedom - empty buildings filled with cold, mould-odored hallways. Rooms after rooms stripped of their past, and here and there clues of the naive ideas which had occupied the minds of the people in charge.
We visited three separate military garrisons which were used by the National People’s Army during the years. Many of the buildings were not constructed by either socialism, or national socialism, but were utilized by both them because of their geographical location. The existing infrastructure provided a good ground where to erect the statues of their worshipped leaders (Lenin) and icons (the Swastika).
Our first visit was to the former home of the 32nd Guards Tank Division of the former Soviet Army, located southwest of Berlin. Our nickname for the place was “CCCP Flight School”, which also tells another story of the place. The area had, and still has, a small airport and was used to train the Soviet Air Force pilots (hence the name). We had seen many pictures from this place and we knew what we were especially looking for - a mural of a soviet soldier (see Picture). After seeing the mural live, I started to wonder about the murals which we’d seen before during our previous trips.
These types of art are apparent in many soviet-era abandoned buildings or in the close vicinity of them and it turned out that they are a part of Socialist realism, a style that was developed in the Soviet Union and imposed as the official style of the country between 1932 and 1988. It is said that in the late Soviet period, any new public building automatically had an earmarked budget for “artistic elements”.
Besides murals, Soviet-era abandoned buildings have mosaics, reliefs, sgraffitoes and stained glass installations which are characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat, and the glorification of heroism of the soldiers, scientists and cosmonauts of the Union.
Socialist realism was not indigenous product of eastern Germany, but a post-war importation from Russia, also visible in other countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We have come across such murals in Latvia and in Estonia, and now here in Germany. The murals are visible reminders of the sphere of influence by the Soviet Union, or what is used to be.
K.P / 28.10.2018
Frey, John R. Socialist Realism in East Germany. The German Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Nov., 1953), pp. 272-278.
When doing background research about the abandoned places we are about to visit, we quite often stumble on urban legends or even ghost stories. To be honest, they are quite amusing and give extra flavor for the coming visit. We’ve never actually seen anything spooky, and those times something happened, it was probably due to equipment malfunction. People also ask us whether we’ve seen something odd when visiting these so called ”haunted houses”? We do tell them about our equipment malfunctions; flickering flashlights and all that, but even the slightest possibility of something unnatural happening is much more interesting than the actual reality.
Where do these ghost stories originate?
The buildings former inhabitants fates are tied to the stories, which are usually sad. They die of heartache, loneliness or misfortune with a twist. Maybe a terrible crime or an injustice happened there. The events took place before our time and have been passed along orally.
This abandoned lighthouse in Wales has a classic story to tell. It was built in 1776 and has been abandoned since 1840 - A long time to stand alone for a building. It is said that the lonely spirit of the lighthouse keeper, Raymond, is still there and many locals have reported sightings of this former lighthouse keeper walking around the top of the structure. News articles report eye witness accounts of odd sensations or voices heard by people visiting the place. These articles are usually the first hits after a Google search because they have been read so many times and this way keep the story alive. Rather than reporting the (boring) truth, they tease us by asking questions like ”what if?”
Ghost stories are part of every culture. They are representations of our collective hopes and fears for the unknown. An abandoned place is usually a result of a similar misfortune and it is not surprising that the stories are tied to these locations.
In the end, we all love a good story.
K.P / 13.7.2018
Hospitals, especially abandoned ones, have an ominous atmosphere surrounding them. These places are naturally connected to disease, pain and death and maybe this is why we tend to avoid them overall. With illness being a constant agony in our society, why is it that there are some many hospitals abandoned?
We have visited several abandoned hospitals during our travels. The photograph above is from an abandoned hospital, a sanatorium, in Poland. A beautiful old building with bright corridors and marvelous architecture, even a hospital chapel, and is now decaying and will eventually collapse or face demolition. The story behind an abandoned hospital is almost always intertwined to one of two reasons: tuberculosis or psychiatric care, or both.
With the case of tuberculosis, the disease has been with us since antiquity, but its pathogenesis wasn't understood until in the 1820s and 1830s. The first TB ”sanatorium” was established in 1859 but the contagiousness was not widely accepted until 1880s. This was the onset of building of tuberculosis hospitals, usually in a distance from urban settlements because of better air quality for the coughing TB-patients. In the 1950s and 1960s, new forms of drugs, such as antibiotics, were discovered and in many western countries, the spread of the disease began to halt with the help of rigorous public health campaigns. This also meant that for the hospitals, new purposes had to be found. Many of them were converted into psychiatric hospitals.
The second reason for the large amount of abandoned hospitals is the history of psychiatric care especially in the US and in Europe. The beginning of psychiatry as a medical speciality dates to the middle of the 19th century. This also meant the beginning of an era of institutionalized psychiatric care - the rise of the “asylum”. Before this, ”lunatic hospitals” practically didn’t differ from jails.
In the beginning of the 20th century, psychiatric hospitals were overcrowded and the conditions were in many places horrible. The developments in psychiatry, medicine and psychoanalytic theory in the 20th century were huge leaps forward and created pressure to reinvent the care of mentally ill. The invention of chlorpromazine and other antipsychotic drugs meant that many patients could be treated in outpatient care and so the period of deinstitutionalization began in the 1950s and 1960s leaving many psychiatric hospitals empty of patients.
We walked the white corridors of this Polish sanatorium and wondered what stories these rooms were hiding from us. We’ve seen old photographs and read the weird and dark history of the place and again felt lucky to have had opportunity to see the place. It is always a race against time, many beautiful old sanatoriums are being torn down sooner or later.
K.P / 8.4.2018
Along our way to another place, we stopped by to see this legendary manor house. The place is well known in Estonia and holds no secrets inside. It was not a waste of time because we read the extraordinary story behind the place.
In this case, we might begin with once upon a time, there was an Estonian prince. The prince had been traveling in Saale, Germany and visited a place called Merseburg Castle. While visiting this gorgeous ensemble of cathedral and castle, the prince fell in love with the princess of Merseburg, who was very, very fond of her current home.
The prince, a clever fellow obviously, figured out a way to conquer the heart of the princess who was reluctant to leave her beloved castle.
The prince vowed to recreate the German castle for her, in Estonia.
So in 1908 began the construction of this beautiful manor house, or one might call it even a castle. The story has a miserable, albeit somehow beautiful ending. Around the time when the exterior was finished, a word came to the prince that her princess had suddenly died. The story doesn’t tell what struck the poor prince down, but soon he fell dead as well and the manor house was left with no owner. The deceased prince was transported to his manor house to spend one single night there, without her beloved princess.
After reading the story, melancholy escorted us to the ruins and back. I only wish that we could know the stories behind many other places we’ve visited. Finding the abandoned building is the easy part, finding why it was abandoned is the hard part.
This used to be someone’s home. The odd green of the walls was very unfamiliar to us, the old items with peculiar meanings and the labels of long gone brands filled the scene with complex significances. For us this was the most unnatural place, a wrinkle in time left unnoticed, but obviously not for the person before us. For him or for her, this was a place of safety.
A simple wooden house next to a wheat field is a common sight in Finland. How many of those are actually abandoned could be staggering proportion - the prevalence of abandoned homes around us, hidden in plain sight could be surprisingly high. But this home wasn’t hiding anymore. What made us feel welcome was a broken window and the tall grass. The front door was open and spiderwebs made us aware that nobody had entered this home for a very long time.
It all began with the machines. In the middle of the the 19th century, 90 per cent of Finns worked in the lumber industry. New imported technologies, although not very sophisticated at that time, meant a decline for particular manual labor skills. The same trend continued and took place with agriculture in the middle of the 20th century, right after the Second World War. Tractors replaced horses, and modern replaced the past.
The rise of the Welfare State in the 1970s introduced the Finns with a set of regional policies. This meant an unnatural, a faux relocation of universities, government institutions, jobs and people to rural areas. It wasn’t the best idea, although we urban explorers reap this yield gratefully nowadays. The next big quake came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many industries relied heavily on the market of the Great Bear. Over a hundred thousands jobs were lost and most of them were in the primary production, which again were located in the rural areas. These slow changes, unforeseen technologies and also sudden events has left many corners of rural homeland desolate, and these houses are evidence for reality of this transformation.
Furniture here makes me feel less unnatural. Couches, books and funny souvenirs from voyages to distant places remind me of a mundane, still unique life. Home is the safe house for our feelings - hopes, dreams and fears. Here, there, wherever we feel home, we rest and recover. Our safe haven. It almost felt like sacrilege to stand here, but then again we urban explorers visit frequently places with sad pasts. We visit them not to mock, but to explore and reveal places so they have a chance to tell their stories, or at least make us wonder what happened.
Finland is quickly turning into a desert of forgotten homes. Up north, whole villages are becoming forgotten last stands against urbanization, places which lost the battle. This is somewhat a sad but natural episode in our history. A turn of a wheel, but then again, history tells us that this development might change it’s direction because of events which hard to predict. In the meanwhile, we are going be busy exploring.
K.P / 7.8.2018
It all starts by taking a photograph
After arriving to a location, abandoned building in most cases, I concentrate with full effort on taking photographs. For me, good photographs are the first priority, good video comes next.
Kimmo walks around more, with good photos in his mind as well, but usually he is already creating a story for the place or taking video. I move more slowly from room to room, taking pictures from different angles. My gear weighs over 20 kilograms and have to crawl, climb and jump with the gear. I have to be careful with them - I don’t want to break my expensive lenses.
We have photographed over 300 places, and all the pictures are saved to two 5 TB hard drive with backups. From every place, I have around 200 to 800 pictures, depending on the size of the place. If the light-conditions are challenging, I take multiple pictures from the same angle, because with the help of HDR-tool I can create better dynamics for the picture. Most of the time, I use a tripod and I shoot manually, although sometimes with full automatic mode just to be sure. In our line of work, the places can be gloomy or even dark, so the exposure times have to be long.
I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, soon I also have a Mark IV and then I’ll leave the older camera as a backup. It might be the case that I use two cameras side by side with different lenses, but let’s see. While inside a building, I use Sigma 12-24 Art or Canon 24-70 lenses. Sometimes if we spend a lot of time in one place, changing lenses can be tiresome, especially if the conditions include dust or the the temperature is well below zero.
The hard choice of which photo to edit
Decision about which photo I start editing can take from 30 minutes to an hour. Quite often I discard the picture after a full photo edit because it just doesn’t feel right. This happens maybe one out of five times, and then I might have wasted three hours completely.
The basis for my decision is my own feeling and the angle of the photograph. When looking at a photo, I might see technical deficiencies and I feel bad for not being thorough enough back then when the photo was taken. Still, I might start editing it because the final result can be acceptable. Taking a photograph requires attention and focusing, because many technical mistakes can be painstakingly difficult to fix. One example is a tilt - Fixing a tilt can reduce the area of the photo drastically and you end up losing something valuable in a photo.
Editing photos reminds me that I could always do a better job when pressing the shutter button. I see the end results back home from a computer, and by then we could be hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away from the place and might never return. This setting creates excitement but also pressure for me as a photographer. The more I do, the better I can cope with it.
What makes our photographs different? I think the most important thing is editing and manipulating the tones. For our photos, I try to create an impression of depth, and I would like to develop that more into a three-dimensional impression. Editing photos isn’t an exact science, so it depends on the photo in front of me.
Permission to be creative
Some of our pictures are actually composite photographs - the vegetation in front of a building could have been replaced into something more suitable. In most cases, I want to use elements from the same location, but sometimes I use elements from other places as well. This is one of the reasons why we see Abandoned Nordic more as an art project, than a documentary one. We have given ourselves a permission to be creative.
If we are photographing in sunny weather, I might change the sky to our final photograph. I aim for a mystical and exciting atmosphere, and that’s why I might add clouds or fog for example. We enjoy horror films, and that might be visible in our photos. We might even discuss about a possible horror movies scene based on one of our photos, if the place inspires us. Last time we imagined a ghost train swooping across the abandoned railway tunnel we were just visiting.
The first step after choosing a picture to edit, is making the basic adjustments with Camera Raw-software. I begin with adjusting the white-balance using middle-grade gray and then with my own approximation and continue to adjusting the exposure. After these I might adjust the saturation, contrast and sharpness. If the photograph is shot outside and the sky is too exposed, I use masks to make the result more dramatic. For the building or buildings, I adjust these separately. After all this, it is time to open the photograph in Photoshop.
In photoshop, I start with the tilt and use the Camera Raw-filter. The reason for this is that I can widen the photo area if necessary. This is the moment when many photos become discarded because they have been taken from too close and fixing the tilts crops the photo area too much. This is something that I have been getting better at all the time, and now I estimate the result while taking the photo. After adjusting the straight lines I might scale the picture if necessary.
Essential tool - A drawing tablet
After the basic photo editing is done, the use of a drawing tablet is required. For me, the tablet is an essential photo editing tool. With it I “brush” the photos quite a lot. Not getting into too much detail, I might spend a few hours testing how the photo develops. Besides editing the photos, I spend time learning new techniques from online tutorials quite a lot.
With the help of the drawing tablet, I clean the picture using spot cleaning brush, clone stamp tool and lasso tool with content aware fill on. This way I can get rid of unwanted spots and some graffities which can be visible on the walls of abandoned buildings. Roughness isn’t all unwanted, and I try to enhance the shadows of the building surfaces. If I see an interesting detail in front of the picture, I might enlarge it just a bit or fix the position of the element for symmetry and impression. For the example photo, I enlarged the pile of rocks in the front and changed the grass area also in front of the building from another photograph because the original was too neat to be used in this picture. The new element is edited as a separate photo layer so the light and colors correlates with main picture. Special attention is required for water and other natural elements, such as old trees.
For the impression of depth, I also use different kinds of Photoshop filters. With trial and error, I have learned various tricks. One trick works for one picture, but not for all. This is something that can be learned only by doing - I trust my own eyes, and my working glasses, which are quite handy.
The final touch
After all these phases, I can finetune the final colours. With this last touch, I can highlight the impression of depth by balancing the darkness of the hue. I might replace some colours or play with the properties of one particular colour. These might include saturation or the balance of darkness. Usually I want the impression of photograph as a whole to be cold and gloomy without tones of magenta or not too much yellow. With colours, I start from the wider colour scale and move onto smaller along the way. With the example picture the last colour edit was on the petals of the flowers - I am very meticulous. The photograph might still need some editing of contrast and sharpness. With Camera Raw filter I’ll do a final check, which might point out a need for fine-tuning of light balance.
Posting the photograph with a micro-story
After editing the photo with a computer is done, I’ll save the image to a cloud service and open it with my smartphone. Sometimes I’ll edit the photo with an app called Snapseed. I might add a touch of Instagram filters when I’m posting the photograph to Instagram into our feed. When I see the picture from my smartphone screen, I might go back to editing phase and do some minor adjustments.
With the example picture here, after posting it I returned twice to do some re-editing with a computer. What disturbed me, was that it didn’t fit well into our Instagram gallery. I worked with the tones little more and was quite happy with the result. I am very strict about what how my photos look like, and that our Instagram gallery creates a harmonic collection of good looking photographs.
At this point, Kimmo has spend some time creating a micro-story for the picture. He combines the atmosphere of the picture with a fictive storyline. Because the texts are so small, the plot has to be quite simple, and the story is always completed by the reader. Kimmo sends me the text and I’ll post the photograph to Instagram.
The Form Remains
Estonia may seem small and distant place, but for an urban explorer it is worth a visit. Our strategy has worked well: take a ferry to reach Tallinn, rent a car and enjoy the feeling of being free. Hotels are cheap and modern so you can just pick one online couple of hours before you want to take break. The country is quite small; the drive from Tallinn to Valga, which is in the border between Estonia and Latvia, takes less than three hours. This means that every corner of the country is reachable during the same day, and whichever place you can spot from Google or satellite pictures, you can reach from the capital, Tallinn.
So why have we been there so many times? When visiting the Baltics and especially Estonia, one encounters numerous beautiful manor houses in various states of decay. Many locations are now under complete reconstruction to be restored to their original beauty, but we naturally have been visiting the ones which haven’t been touched with construction tools. Many manor houses have interesting and active history which quite often ended when the Soviet era began. Because of the Soviet past, the country has many weird and dark stories to tell, if you are willing to dig a little deeper. A website dedicated to the heritage of Estonian manor houses can be found here: http://www.mois.ee/english/
We had a nice conversation with a manor house owner (not the manor house in the picture above) who was stuck with the state officials. The reason was that the original blueprints of the manor house had disappeared years ago. The manor house could not be restored because the original form should be appreciated, both inside and outside. He, nor anyone else had a clue how the place looked like before the miserable communist era. For the time being, the huge building served as a over-sized cigar bar for this man. He gave us a tour inside and the we could clearly see the beauty of the original form in the tall walls and corridors. Still, we could not escape the reality - the inside was totally gone. Only bones were left.
The one in the picture tells another story. It has been forgotten completely. Still, it presents it’s true form to visitors with no sense of shame. Our lesson here is that in many places, weather and years cannot tear away the original - the bone structure which had been designed with care and devotion many years ago.
Wrong place for people who were right
This was the wrong place for people who were right. For what we saw and understood, this prison was not the right place for anyone. Political prisoners such as agitators, party leaders and even presidents were gripping the bars inside this huge facility. For us, the prison offered gloomy corridors, bars in windows and cells out of order.
We sneaked in through a hole in the wall and reached the actual prison facility, which was taken over by adolescent trees and wild bushes. Around us, the solid stone walls told us that the place was going to be here for a long time, but the floors were already gone. This is quite normal for many abandoned places because winter brings snow inside and turns everything wooden into wet matter in spring. Stone, on the other hand, has been around us from the beginning, and will be at the end.
We came across an old model of the place sitting on a large stand, partially destroyed by looters. Still, it showed us the idea behind the design. We were inside a place that seemed to be more like a fortress than a prison, but the idea was to keep dangerous people in, not out. We continued, and after walking for a while, we stumbled on tall cell block areas with steel corridors attached to the stone walls. The guards could see all the cells from here, or from the upper floors. The damaged corridors were hanging dangerously and we decided to stay on the ground floor for the time being.
Couple hours went by taking photos and video. For some reason, we did our work in silence, we all felt comfortable not to speak. Maybe that’s why an odd repeating sound coming outside the walls made us freeze. We listened it for a while and agreed that it was getting definitely closer. We grabbed our gear and started to head out to the gate where we had entered. We sneaked through the hole in the wall and I felt like we’d just performed a successful prison break! When outside, we understood where the sound was coming from. The current inhabitants of the prison were coming home. A huge herd of cows led by a farmer where coming in for the night. What once was a terrifying prison for political dissidents, was now an overkill for an animal barn.
Later, reading about the prison, I found out that when the gates closed, the prisoners were cut off from the rest of the world. Newspapers had to be smuggled in. Prisoners were often men of ideas - philosophers, revolutionary thinkers and such. We were lucky to enter, and exit, through the gate. Many did only the first.
We crossed a red string, which wouldn’t hold anyone entering the place, but it marked our success. We were here, in a building which we had seen so many times in famous photographs. It was one of those places you felt that couldn’t be real in any sense. It was a place ‘out there’ somewhere, untouchable and unreachable until we stepped over that tiny string.
Inside the air wasn't good, it even might have been toxic. We sensed movement immediately all around us and understood that the place was filled with pigeons. The floors, the ceilings, everything was covered in bird droppings. It felt unearthly walking the staircase of this crown jewel of the cultural high-life, a magnificent piece of architecture and breathing in the pigeon infested fumes. They sat on the mammoth lamps like audience waiting for the show to begin. The lamps reflected the golden morning sunlight coming from the large windows, like the day was holy, revealing the details, small ornaments made with craftsmanship unknown to us.
Room after room something interesting. The prison, with this particularly chilling patient chair, was cool but little bit mainstream. We didn’t let that stop us. Authentic all right, but something was missing. This hidden element, the essence, was the joy of finding a place. We have been traveling quite a lot and with all the "100 places to visit before you die"-guides we would start a bonfire. But since many abandoned places are known and are going to be more easily found with the sport gaining popularity, whats the point? With all the people visiting the places, they are hardly abandoned.
Anyway, we kept going. The prison was huge and offered us something for the whole day. It was peaceful to circle around the compound looking for hints and clues about the daily life of the inmates. Prisons smell like rage, trouble and fear. They are clothed with remorse. When you see the room where people were executed, the sense is quite strong. Library with all the books on the ground. Bars and locks collecting rust.
Urban explorers are racing against time. The stories are out there, telling everyone where to find the abandoned places. History books are turning irrelevant when popular news sites are baiting with headlines like ”10 most interesting abandoned places you didn’t knew exist”. The pleasure for us has been the search.
The prison where this photo was taken, is now beyond the possibility of a second visit. It is closed for good and we were happy to make there in time. We won the race, this time. Combining photography with urban exploration has the advantage that we always have something we can leave with - a photo.
I talked with a journalist today who would like to interview us for an article. She asked a question that made me think about all the places we’ve visited. What makes Finland a special place for urban exploration? I considered the question for a while and answered that certain eras in our nations history has left particular types of buildings abandoned. This is true for all countries.
This picture is from Estonia. The country is full of interesting abandoned manor houses. Why? Searching and digging history books will give some answers but most of all the information gives an idea what makes Estonia interesting for urban exploration. Visiting many countries has revealed us what specific types of buildings to look for when visiting. In the case of Estonia, we’ve visited tens of these beautiful old manor houses, most of them forgotten somewhere in the middle of a forest.
In Estonia, realizing what we were looking for, opened the gates for us. It was a reference with which to look for something interesting and when you find one, you’ll find others. Searching for abandoned places is part of the fun because it is kind of a puzzle - it starts to unfold when you find the first piece.
After a long day in the field, I feel really good. Harder the better. Clothes soaking wet? I love it. Insect bites, not so much, but anyway!
When we’re done the normal routine includes carrying all the stuff to a hotel room and trying to find some energy to change into something that is not covered in dust or in mud. A shower, ten points. A beer and we’re in heaven. The small stuff feels great after a day exploring in abandoned buildings, driving, wandering, eventually finding and of course - taking painstaking amount of photos and video.
Away from urban exploring, life can be pretty sweet. Easy at least. Going to the office, writing memos and the usual Clark Kent stuff. So I’m not so surprised that getting some dirt in my hands feels great. Is it a escape? No, but it is something different. It is hard - it has challenge in it. Finding something that doesn’t want to be found. Walking on roads that haven’t been walked in a while.
There was something grand in the corner of my eye. The palace was surrounded by a large park with tall trees and remains of an old fountain. The baroque scene was something we had stumbled on by mistake.
This was only a lucky pit stop. We had parked our car next to an abandoned building, maybe a school or an administrative building visible from the road we were on just a moment ago. Lucky us. The palace was barely visible from there, but the tallness gave it away. A hundred meters further along the road and we would have missed the place entirely. We approached the park which was surrounded by fences. The full view opened up before us and it was an easy decision to start unpacking the photography gear.
It is a different sensation finding something by a mistake. Sitting in the car, waiting to reach a place gives you the opportunity to prepare for what you are about to see. The weather, the time of the day, the surroundings, all that. You can do your homework by reading and studying the place. Not this time.
We saw an open door to the palace. And then we saw the dogs. So, no hope of entering the building. Still, we were happy because of this coincidence. It is not about chance, it is about seeing what you are seeking and finding even when you are not looking.
You've probably seen those ”10 most haunted places”-type posts on Facebook and Pinterest. This place is quite often among them. We came to a conclusion that it is the gate, not the actual manor house behind it. A gate has a very strong meaning, like doors or other passageways usually do. It can both invite people to enter, or it can seclude people who are left with only questions related to what goes on behind the gate. The power of the picture comes from this setting, where viewers can only guess what is inside the manor house peeking through the gate.
This place wasn’t very easy to find. We managed to find the name of the village where the building is located. Unfortunately, there were many villages with the same name in this country. After browsing through satellite images, we found a building that seemed to be right one. When arriving, we were happy to be in a right place.
After stepping through the gate, we found ourselves in a jungle of bushes and plants. The place hadn’t been touch in years. We hiked through a fortress of green vegetation which practically concealed the building. The manor house, doors wide open, was there. We entered.
Photographs of abandoned places are completed with the help of viewers imagination. We see something we hope, and fear, in these images. The truth is almost always different. We will leave you to imagine what was inside.
We were (again) cruising along small roads in the countryside of Estonia. I had to hit the breaks quite hard when we saw this peculiar truck on a lonely field. And reverse a little. The field and the sky wrapped the vehicle into silence. No houses, no other cars. Just us.
Driving day after day could feel like a miserable way to spend your spare time, but actually our experiences have changed our attitudes towards the open road. Cliche as it might be, you never know what you are going to see and experience the next day. So far, we’ve found ourselves in sensationally weird places which were not planned in any way. Sceneries like the abandoned car in this picture, are completely random and we just stumble upon them. This is the reason why we are on the move.
Crossroads is a place where your freedom is truly put to the test. If you have to be somewhere, you act accordingly and turn the wheel towards your responsibilities. We, on the other hand, invest in time to take the random path.
This is what we could call field work. If we wouldn’t be there, the random would be left explored. Social media is filled with pictures of famous and grande scenes of abandoned castles and manor houses. This is what most of us are after in the end, but then again, you will never create anything original if you stay on the path that has been walked many times before.
We were inside an abandoned mausoleum (a grave site) built by the people who wore swastikas in the 1940’s. The building, oddly-shaped, stood on a windy hill, in the middle of a forest. The sun was about to set soon and moody colors were slowly forming to the stony walls of this peculiar site. If I would start a sentence saying ‘legend has it..’ it would fit here, to this place. Legend would include weird tales about occultism and Nazi commanders - these stories will spark up anyone’s imagination. But most of all, it sparks ideas how to see the place when you are standing there.
Corridors still had some old mosaic decorations and fading emblems of the Nazi eagle were visible. We had no appreciation for the ideas behind this place, quite the opposite. Still, the history and an interesting story fortified the walls here. History was the condition that made us think and see what we actually were looking at. Urban exploration is not only about finding a building - it is also about finding a building from the history, digging up the meaning of events that lead to its current state and locating it in the timeline.
Given that the place has a really strange past, did something unusual happen there? Yes. Do we believe that it was just a coincidence? Yes. Does it make a good story to tell? Yes it does.
All this petty fighting over nothing. Explosions were just silent whispering in the ears of the giants. Bullets were grains of sand for these magnificent beings. The great monolith that stood in the horizon was the everlasting short-sightedness of this silly race.
What actually made sense, was the water. What beauty can be formed from only the simplest of natural elements. The decisive motion, armed with a trident made of waves and a shield shaped by patience. The water participated in the eradication of the remnants of these stupid wars.
Bit by bit, the water took down the walls of these fortresses. Gods had all the time in the world. They just watched as the water carved pieces out of these buildings standing in the water. Soon (in their perspective) they would be gone. Good!
There were many doors open to a mansion standing in front of us. This beautiful old building stood silently at the edge of a small town somewhere in central Europe. Like any other small town with few visitors, life seemed to be quite slow here and we felt like we were intruding just by being there, making a ripple into a calm pond. The mansion seemed to be a stubborn case as well - seemed that these corridors wouldn't lead us to main section where we would possibly find what we were looking for. They were dead ends. Except one.
There it was. The piano, still standing. It was missing legs, and we could see that it wouldn't take long that it would fall down completely. Although it was just an old instrument, left there forgotten, it had meaning. With all abandoned buildings, once something is gone, it stays gone. You cannot fix an abandoned place. Essence comes from items being untouched, windows unbroken and the scene undisturbed with motives other than ours and people seeking the same things as we. The place was very fragile.
Finding abandoned places can be hard, which is good. We want to protect these places and this why we rarely say where the picture was taken. In this mansion, we felt that this was particularly important, soon the grand scene would be history. Unfortunately, this place was easy to find.
We were quite surprised when we saw the insides of this huge palace which is located in the corner of a quiet park somewhere in Europe. People walked by without paying much attention to this palace. It seemed that the story wasn’t quite unusual here. Now inside, it was a completely different story. The palace had grabbed the beauty of the past with it and wouldn’t let go. Even though many rooms were empty, the place could not be stripped away from its original glory.
Corridors were silent and dusty. It seemed that behind every room, we would find another one. Steps leading to another floor, again. Old oak bookshelves still intact in a library and a tub in white bathroom reminding about the vanity that is common between generations.
Abandoned places can surely be different. This one had a touch of renaissance in it.
It might feel strange sometimes, finding these buildings from unexpected locations. This castle, surrounded by thick bushes and gloomy oak trees, was one. We parked our car a few hundred meters away, next to an active soccer field. Parents were calmly watching how their kids ran after a ball, not noticing us unpacking the photo gear. We felt weird being so close to a small town, bathing in ordinary life.
We reached a rusty gate which was open. Old tire tracks were covered with grass. The building, an old castle, was standing right in front of us. Windows were sealed tightly with pieces of wood. Impressive, we thought, as the small but unusually tall building was pointing towards the sky. We began circling the building. The moment was calm, because the small town seemed to be uninterested of the buildings existence.
It made me wonder how the place felt so isolated, even though it was practically in the middle of a town. The green barrier of woods and bushes made sure that it was kept as a secret from people not seeking to find it. If you would want to visit this peculiar place, but don't know the exact location, it is still possible. You'll find it just there, where your parents told you to stay away from when you were only a kid.
Satisfied with the photos, we walked away from the same gate, and after a short moment were walking again on a paved street like nothing had happened. Like the place was somewhere else.