John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Like a church tower used for hiding from the Nazis, and a paved-over river full of colossal spiderwebs.
In Brooks' case, the treasures are spectacular, heavily atmospheric milieus of funk and decay that most human eyes will never see: a flooded nuclear bunker and reeking sewers under Manchester, a once-majestic Dutch hippodrome gradually turning to splinters of wood and gold. The 36-year-old photographer scurries about these forlorn settings, often in blackness because he doesn't have time to set up lighting gear, snapping away with a blinding flashgun. Later, in front of a computer, he stitches the shots together to make a cohesive scene.
"It’s really interesting to build these shots, because when I’m in the tunnels all I have is a head torch and it’s hard to get a sense of the whole space," he says. "When I build the images it’s the first time I really get an idea of where I was."
Brooks has been engaged in urban exploration for more than half a decade for "Secret Cities," a photographic series he's building with Andy Brydon of Curated Place. The inspiration for the project was the duo's native Manchester and its abundance of strange, forgotten spaces (like the tunnel underneath Deansgate pictured above). "It’s often thought of as the first truly industrial city," Brooks says. "This means there are many layers of history, from abandoned canal tunnels running beneath the streets to systems of archways which were last used as air-raid shelters during the World War II."
The "Secret" guys have created eerie-looking portraits of Manchester, Edinburgh, and Zoetermeer, a city in the west Netherlands that's (brace yourselves) part of the "Haaglanden conurbation." They most recently spelunked into the urban history of Sittard Geleen, a medium-sized city in the southern Netherlands whose creaky old guts endlessly fascinate Brooks. As his website explains:
Beneath the streets of Sittard there is a remarkable space that carries the Geleenbeek [River] secretly through the town – home to colossal spider’s webs, armies of flies and acrobatic bats constantly threatening to collide. It’s a surreal environment that feels infinitely separated from the order of the town above. However, it’s proximity to the city for anyone willing to explore this ignored space is palpable as delivery vehicles and shoppers private conversations are clearly audible through the manhole covers that separate this subterranean nature reserve from the retail heart of the town.
Here is that dismal waterway. This could be one of the last photos of it in this state, as Sittard plans to expose it to the light of day for a new park-centered development:
Curious Europeans have been able to peer behind the concrete-and-iron curtains of their cities at several "Secret" gallery shows, thanks to commissions from URBIS Manchester, Stads Museum Zoetermeer, and the Museum Het Domein in Sittard Geleen. Everyone else can check out samples of the team's sepulchral, fascinating oeuvre below, which Brooks has provided along with answers to a few questions about the project:
How do you find these "secret" places? Do you go with any guides or do you work alone?
We find them in many ways. A lot of the time there are rumors, some of which are not entirely true. Through research we eventually find the key holder or an alternative way in and discover the truth of a place.
Also, we often run workshops with students, photo groups and interested locals where in exchange for me sharing some of my photographic skills, they tell us about their towns and the spaces that mean something to them. We try to pick the places we look at to tell the story of a town, looking at the different versions of the history of a place and also what a city means to the people who live there.
What’s the main artistic challenge of getting good shots in these dark, sometimes confined, and perhaps crumbling/dangerous places?
All of my photography involves building shots out of many exposures, with days of digital post-production going into each final image. This means that I can capture very detailed panoramics of enclosed spaces. I aim to not just show an element of a space, but create images that capture the whole thing. I also work on the colors and the way the light works, as this helps me capture not just how it looked but also how it felt to be there.
Another challenge is bringing light to pitch-black spaces. We have found that in order for people to take the time to let us into these spaces, we have to work quickly with just me and Andy. So there is no time for big lighting setups (and usually no power, anyway). So to light the shots I walk among the caverns and tunnels with a flashgun. I keep my camera locked in the same place, and through many images capturing the flash in different places I am then able to use Photoshop to bring many shots together and fill these dark spaces with light.
What do you look for when deciding what to shoot?
A lot of the time it’s about finding something new we have not seen before. In the latest "Secret Cities" project in Sittard Geleen in the Netherlands I got the chance to photograph boat wrecks, moving cargo cranes, 11th-century church towers, and many other compelling sites which were new to me and took the project in new directions.
We choose our locations to tell the story of a place. Many themes reoccur when we spend time speaking with the locals of the cities – stories of industry to religion and power structures to modern attempts to revive areas and even abandoned living spaces. We try to do justice to what we are told about the place, and start new conversations about these cities and what they mean to people.
Have you had any close calls, such as flash floods in sewers or angry hobos living in abandoned buildings?
One of the first shoots from this project took us into a system of tunnels very late at night. We were taken there by a group of urban explores who led us on a path within the underside of a bridge 20 feet over a shallow river. With all my clunky photography equipment slightly unbalancing me, this made for a pretty nervy introduction to this kind of work. But it’s set me up well for many subsequent adventures into bunkers, up church towers, and to many more of these forgotten spaces which are so close to the busy city streets.
Here's the photographer and Andy Brydon in an abandoned bunker in Edinburgh, doing their best Ghostbusters impression:
Images used with permission of Andrew Brooks Photography