Urban Exploration Photography 101 With Miki Lansdowne


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Urban exploration is one's exploration of man-made structures that are typically abandoned ruins or elements of the man-made environment that are not readily seen by most people. You may have seen TV shows documenting urban exploration, but it's not a subject we've really tackled in-depth at Photodoto...until now, that is.

Photo by Miki Lansdowne.

Photo by Miki Lansdowne.

Recently, I was contacted by Miki Lansdowne, an urban exploration photographer. Naturally, I gladly took this opportunity to find out more about this very unique niche in photography.

Q: What exactly is urban exploration photography?

A: Urban exploration photography is photographic documentation of the exploration of man-made structures, usually dilapidated and abandoned ruins. I photograph their transformations through time before they were demolished. Urban exploration can also be referred to as infiltration, although infiltration can be more closely associated with the exploration of active and inhabited sites.

There is also draining, (the exploration of drains,) urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving and building hacking. It may sometimes involve trespassing onto private property, and you can possibly be arrested and/or charged fines. Urban exploration is rapidly becoming a worldwide thing. This is my plan in the near future; I want to explore other countries.

Q: I hear urban exploration can be quite hazardous if you're not careful. What are some of the challenges that a person can encounter doing this? Do you perhaps have some advice for wannabe urban explorer photographers?

A: Urban Exploration can be very dangerous. Several people have died or sustained injury during exploring.  It is very important to wear a respirator to protect your lungs from various dangers to your health; there is asbestos in old buildings. Never go alone, and always carry a weapon for personal protection. You never know who or what you will come across in a place that has been abandoned for many years.

Do not venture into any drains if you know there is possible rain in the forecast. Drains can fill up quite quickly, so you risk drowning or getting trapped. Always take a first aid kit. Generally, just be smart and take all the precautions you need to be safe.

Abandoned 1

Photo by Miki Lansdowne.

As an urban explorer, it’s important that you don’t have a weak stomach. You have to be tough-skinned and fit. You must be able to run at a moment’s notice, jump, climb and squeeze through small areas if needed and right through pitch-black areas. And if you’re disgusted by dead animals and the possibility of finding dead people, getting germs, layers of decay, mounds of trash and some of the most horrific smells you could imagine and more, then this is not for you!

But not every explorer has such excitement; sometimes it’s a bust. I’ve been to several places that I could not access; some of the buildings were demolished or restored.  At times, a few places were not worth photographing, all which are a huge let down.

Q: Where have you gone in pursuit of your urban-exploration passions?

A: I have been to several states, and I have explored a plethora of places. My most recent was with my Urbex group, Decay Devils, and a few other friends. We went to an abandoned Six Flags in New Orleans. There is nothing like having a complete amusement park to yourself. I assure you! It was completely fascinating.It was a childhood fantasy come true with a decaying twist! It was exhilarating to climb up the tracks of roller coasters and photograph from areas not normally accessed when going to a normal amusement park.

Abandoned 2

Photo by Miki Lansdowne.

We also explored other abandoned buildings on the New Orleans trip. Katrina really did a number on this amazing city.  I will definitely be visiting here again.

Q: So far, what's been your favorite destination?

A: I have explored a vast amount of cities in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia. But Gary, Indiana, has been my favorite so far. The city of Gary has so much astonishing history and character. The most beautifully abandoned buildings I’ve seen thus far were there.  I’ve spent a lot of time there and feel deeply connected to it. Many of my pieces I use in my exhibits were taken in Gary, Indiana.

Abandoned 3

Photo by Miki Lansdowne.

Q: Have you ever found something truly special during your explorations? Please tell us all about it.

A: I have found some really incredible things in these places. One of which is on display at the University of Illinois: a 1900s Parr Calorimeter. A Calorimeter is a simplified instrument for measuring the heating value of coal at a time when such devices were not generally available. Parr’s calorimeter and other fuel-testing devices were contributing factors in the development of a market for the extensive reserves of bituminous coal available.

Mr. Parr also founded the physics department at the university so it was an honor to return the vessel to its home.  I discovered it while exploring an abandoned school a few years back in Indiana.

Abandoned 4

Photo by Miki Lansdowne.

Q: What are some popular locations for urban explorers to go to?

A: Many common urban exploration journeys include, but are not limited to, amusement parks, churches, grain elevators, factories, power plants, missile silos, fallout shelters, hospitals, asylums, schools, poor houses and sanatoriums.

Q: Do you have a personal philosophy in your approach to urban exploration photography?

A: As an explorer, my code is personal safety for me and my group, to never cause damage to the places I explore, to preserve the history found and to capture the perfect image. It takes patience, research and skill to do urban exploration photography. Sure, you have some that just walk into a place and snap some pictures, and that’s it, but for me, it’s a passion.

I take my time in these places. I want to know every room and every corner.  I let my mind explore the stories these places share with me. I am completely captivated by it. I let the feelings each place gives me guide me.  I love the excitement of each step and of each discovery. I take the most grotesque, devastated, decaying and forgotten places and make them a beautiful piece of art.  I try to capture the raw emotion in every photograph. I want you to see through my eyes - the beauty and the devastation. I want you to feel the raw emotion I feel while shooting.

Abandoned 5

Photo by Miki Lansdowne.

Q: What is the meaningfulness that you get from doing this type of work?

A: Each photograph tells a different story: some of love, hate, destruction and the decay of our dying world, an abandoned moment in time.  Every one of my photographs is a rare moment in life never to be seen again. Most of the places have changed in some way or another; some places are even gone.  You will never see that exact moment again.

It is so empowering that I can create a time capsule, if you will, and it motivates me to do what I do. I want to travel the globe and search out other abandoned places to share with my audience. I want to take them places they will never get a chance to see.

Interviewee's Bio: Miki Lansdowne is an urban-exploration photographer who travels around the entire U.S., photographing abandoned places. She also photographs modeling, family, graduation, engagement, boudoir and more. See her website for more information, and visit her Facebook page.

Marc Schenker is the chief editor of Photodoto. A happenin' copywriter, editor and blogger, he's also a freelance writer for hire. You can connect with him at marcschenkerwriting.com and through his various social media accounts.
  • Kieran

    Great article! do some urbex photography in Scotland and share the same sense of amazement at some of the old dilapidated buildings and their history. Sadly many of the places in Glasgow (where I live) are sealed up with no way in, and many of the abandoned buildings I have had my eye on are in the process of being knocked down because of preparations for the Commonwealth Games, which are being hosted here this year. Finding people to come with me is the hardest thing though! People are always excited about it, until you explain about the asbestos and the climbing/squeezing and the possibility of dead things….

    • http://marcschenkerwriting.com/ Marc Schenker

      Thanks, Kieran.

      We do our best to bring our readers stuff that relates to them in a very meaningful way in photography, and an interview with an urban landscape photographer just seemed to be a no-brainer for us!

      Thanks for reading Photodoto.

    • Sparrow & the Owl

      Hi Kieran its Miki , I know the feeling of the things your saying. I am fortunate enough to have found a great group of folks who love to travel and explore. I hope to one day explore your area in the meantime good luck and I hope you find some places to explore and some people to explore with. ML

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