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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.