View Kendall Anderson's Work at His Website


Life in the Decay: Per Contra Interviews Kendall Anderson

PC - Your work is both stark and diverse.  What made you decide to begin “crawling around dark abandoned buildings?”

KA - With a background in architecture I have an obvious interest in the built environment and with that comes an appreciation of the ruin in both its modern romanticized form (the Roman Forum) and unconventional expressions (abandoned power stations).

During a Doors Open festival in Toronto (a weekend festival where a number of otherwise inaccessible buildings are opened to the public for exploration and tours) I happened upon an old maintenance facility for the local transit system and I was absolutely amazed by what I found. Years of decay and abandonment, beauty in mundane forms, attention to natural lighting, solitude, potential danger and excitement.  Perhaps it sounds cliche but it was an eye-opening experience for me and one that had
me photographing the building and its details for the following two hours. I hadn't considered that places like this existed at all, let alone in the middle of our cities.

This experience initiated the addiction which evolved into an intentional practice of exploring and documenting a number of unfamiliar forgotten places.


PC - When you look at a structure in a severe state of decay (or in the literary sense, corruption), what is it that makes you decide to record it?  Specifically, there is a sense of life and movement in many of your photos – such as the “Grafitti Car” in the Massey Ferguson Plant – that betrays the emptiness of the structure in its current state, do you see that before you photograph the building or is that a spontaneous reaction to the environment?

KA - Perhaps one of the reasons I focus on these abandoned locations is because they provide some reflief from the homogenous landscape of the contemporary urban environment: strip malls, condos and cookie-cutter houses. Given the tendency for developers to demolish rather than re-use older buildings, there is an urgency in their exploration and documentation. Over one-third of the locations I've documented online have been demolished or substantially altered in the previous two years alone.

If a place has variety, character and the ability to tell a story I'll probably spend a good amount of time documenting it. That being said, the depth of documentation is really unknown until I can fully experience the place and sometimes that takes multiple visits. I never know what to expect in any of these buildings, so the act of documenting is invariably a two-stage process. At first I'm looking for novel scenes by nature of the volume of space, the machinery inside or the particular light. After that I tend to focus on details and round out the collection with images to illustrate context.

I think if you can see life in the photo, then it has successfully engaged the viewer and inserted them into the world of the image. It is a challenge to bring a sense of life into effectively "dead" buildings. A common technique which I rely on is to find an element in the scene with which the viewer can associate. Many of the locations I photograph contain equipment and spaces of a scale that is hard to comprehend but by ensuring that human-scale elements are shown in context (e.g., the car, a chair, a door) the viewer can rationalize the space. The 'life' is brought by the viewer, facilitated by elements in the photograph.


PC - As for the specs, what is your favorite camera and why?  Do you use different cameras for different effects?

KA - It's fairly easy for me to choose my favourite camera, as I have only one -- the Canon Digital Rebel XT -- a digital SLR which I've been
shooting with for the past year. Prior to that, the first year of photos on the web site were shot with my old Canon G2 (a digital prosumer point-and-shoot).

In terms of gear, I keep things fairly simple: camera, tripod, two lenses. When I'm photographing abandoned buildings I'm typically using a 17-85mm lens and I'll sometimes switch to my 50mm as it has a very wide aperture (f1.8) which is great for details. I'll also switch between those lenses sometimes to force myself to see scenes differently.

A brighter and larger viewfinder combined with enough resolution to create 40x60" prints would make this the perfect camera for me. I fully
expect that model to be available in a few short years but for now, I really can't complain. It's a fine tool and quite comfortable to use.

PC - You reference the “darkroom” when you refer to digital constructs.  Do you encounter many people who are biased against digitally mastered photography?  If so, why do you think they are resistant to digitally produced photography and how would you explain the similarities between analog and digital?  Does digital enhancement corrupt the work?

KA - The bias against digital seems less pronounced these days although the familiar fears continue to come from those who typically have little experience or understanding of the digital workflow. I hear comments such as 'it's cold, it's too clinical,' etc. It's sort of like CD versus vinyl all over again though I think we're well into the acceptance phase by now. I am unapologetically in favour of digital.

While at this point in time I'd certainly get a better quality negative from film, the advantage in digital is the total control over the second half of the photographic process. Namely, the processing of the "print." As far as I'm concerned, photography has two fundamental aspects -- capturing of a negative and creation of a print -- and both of these are equally important and require significantly different skill sets. With digital I can easily (and affordably) control that entire process with the freedom to experiment and make mistakes without incurring additional costs.

Of course, being able to see what you shot while in the field and being able to visually review a photo's histogram to ensure a good exposure
are key advantages when shooting with digital. This is probably more relevant to people with less experience (a category I firmly place myself within) but the immediate response creates a very positive feedback loop.

As for corruption... I find the idea that a digital darkroom might be less valid than a traditional one to be very odd. One can mask, dodge, burn, remove and add elements, adjust colours and contrast and perform many other operations in the traditional darkroom. The difference is that with digital, it's much easier. I typically hear the argument that a film camera captures the truth and with digital you never really know if it existed. But photography is not about recording an objective reality because as soon as you select a lens, select a viewpoint, and frame an image you are imposing a subjective decision about a moment in time. The criteria for corruption really rests with the intended use of
photo. For photojournalism purposes the amount of enhancement questions credibility. But for purposes of 'art', well.. I don't see painters being criticized for oversaturating a sky or adding a few flowers here and there.

Personally I tend to stick to traditional darkroom techniques, namely cropping, contrast adjustments, colour adjustments, dodging and burning. My own rule-of-thumb is that if a photo needs more than about 5 minutes of post-processing work, I'd better reconsider whether that photo is worth using in the first place.

PC - You are gifted in the use of light and shadow.  Your left to right flow in “Steel Corridor No. 1” at the Bethlehem Steel Mill begins in a blaze moving to a dark space and finally emerges with the subdued metal wall.  Does your view of the elements of light and shadow occur through the lens, or is that something that you see as you enter a space and why?

KA - There is a third option which is the discovery of an image's potential in the 'darkroom'. In this particular example, the range of light was too great for the camera to capture. In post-production it was significantly overexposed in order to balance the focal point (the end of the tunnel) and resulted in something I didn't conceive of at the time of shooting.

It's difficult to articulate the method by which I "select" scenes while I'm exploring any given place. Initially I look for an obvious subject or repetition of form. The presence and quality of light is what steers me in one direction versus another but the lens is primarily a tool to help me frame and compose. That process -- the act of removing elements from the field of view, i.e., distractions -- can also lead to recognizing interesting lighting conditions I may not have seen in advance.

PC - Continuing with that theme; your choice of subjects lend themselves to darker imagery, yet you seem to bring out the visual best of these structures in your work.  Rather than catalog a death, you bring out life in these structures.  In accomplishing that, do you see an intrinsic value in light, or is it more functional in your work and why?

KA - I think death and cynicism are common associations with abandonment but I see these subjects as very much alive and full of interest. Though the buildings may no longer serve their original purpose, for me they are a source of novelty with very rich layers of history.

As to how light plays a role in this portrayal, I would offer that in this context the presence of light is a rare commodity which is consciously sought out. One is certainly at the mercy of skylights and structural damage for natural light sources and in some unfortunate cases there
are none to be found in the most interesting areas. These abandoned places force you to become more aware of your available light because they serve to control it for you. You simultaneously curse its absence when you find a curious piece of machinery and praise it wherever it peeks through.

Finding "good light" can be as difficult as finding a good subject and in the photographs I'm most pleased with, both elements are equally present.

PC - We would be negligent if we did not discuss your use of color.  “Interrogation Room” from your series at the Whitby Psychiatric facility is ironically colorful.  When you use color, do you have a specific intent, or is that a reaction to the space?  If so, how do you feel the reaction?  Is it intellectual or emotional?

KA - One of the main reasons I use colour is to be faithful to the places I document. Where colour was an integral component of the facility -- and for the Whitby Psychiatric series I feel it certainly was -- I believe I need to maintain that. As a gross generalization, I find that black & white photos of decay tend to get read quickly as "art" shots and don't reflect as clearly the actual experience of the place. I'm glad you see the irony in this particular photo. For me the irony stems from the happy pastel colours in defiance of the abandonment they've received, never meant to be seen in context of their own decay.

Where colour is irrelevant or where light quality or texture is more important, I'll sometimes move to black & white. I'll readily admit that sometimes I take the black & white route to save a photo I find only marginally compelling in colour. That type of experimentation led to a number of high-contrast images I'm quite pleased with in the Bethlehem Steel series. Score another point for the ease of a digital workflow.

It's easy to go overboard and there was a period where I was creating highly saturated images. The look appealed to me and the subject matter offered it readily. These days I enforce a bit more restraint when it comes to overexuberant displays of colour.


PC - Is there anything about your work that we have not discussed that you feel should be discussed or want to discuss?

KA - Ultimately this is a hobby for me, combining photography with architecture in a way that lets me explore places I would never experience otherwise. Otherwise, I suspect I've probably been far too verbose already.









Issue 2

Back to Archive