Photographer Brett Patman’s Lost Collective project is preserving the history and beauty of abandoned buildings.
A regular after-work drive past a deserted old building sparked a curiosity in Brett Patman. Thinking the building would be an interesting photography subject, he snuck into the empty space one weekend to take photos. A new obsession unfolded and the Lost Collective project was born.
The project has grown a strong following, with the story of each site’s past as endearing as the images themselves. Scenes of crumbling stairs, abandoned workbenches and empty halls are eerily beautiful and Brett’s signature dark tones and high level of detail create interest in what are often long-forgotten structures.
His work is reinvigorating the spaces and generating conversation about their history. Recognising the cultural significance of Brett’s work, The State Library of NSW has now archived Lost Collective to Pandora, the online archive set up by the National Library of Australia. And in May, Lost Collective received a highly commended award for the multimedia category at the 2016 National Trust Heritage Awards.
Brett’s interest in capturing lost histories saw him venture to Japan recently. We caught up with him upon his return to talk about his fascinating project and how he gets the shot.
What is it about Lost Collective that resonates with people?
The history behind the buildings is one of the popular aspects.
The photos themselves are also a big drawcard to the project. I try to create scenes where people can let their eyes wander around the image and be drawn in.
I try to connect the communities and the people who had a relationship with the places I shoot. It’s more or less at the core of what Lost Collective is all about: engaging people to have that discussion and talk about their experiences.
How do you choose a building?
I have to take whatever I can get really. Anything that suits the project I will shoot. I mean if it’s dilapidated then, yes, it definitely suits the style of what I do but I’m not necessarily after that … I guess I look for something that has the ability to evoke that sense of stillness and wonder when you’re looking at the finished images photos.
Tell me about your recent three-week trip to Japan.
We flew into Tokyo, then made our way to Sapporo, Yubari, Takasaki, Annaka, Chichibu, Nikko, Kinugawa, Ashio, Maebashi, and finishing in Nasu before driving back to fly out from Narita.
We visited an abandoned school, hospital, ryokan (traditional Japanese onsen hotel), power plant, a 400-year-old copper mine and ghost town and a weird wild west-themed amusement park.
How did taking photos of abandoned buildings in Japan differ to here in Australia?
Abandoned buildings in Japan seem to be far more abundant than in Australia. The buildings I visited were generally much older than what I’d find in Australia. They’re also mostly made of wood which had become waterlogged in parts so the risk of falling through the floor was much more apparent.
Some buildings actually had full carpets of moss and trees growing in a completely enclosed room, surviving off light coming through the window and water that was leaking through the roof. I thought that was a pretty amazing sight that I don’t ever get to see here. Nature always finds a way.
What was the highlight?
The highlight for me was definitely the city of Yubari on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. It’s a bankrupt city that almost feels like it’s been cut off from the rest of Japan. I found it’s history fascinating It was a pretty dreary place – lots of bleak, crumbling buildings and the echoes of crows across the valley – but I found it kind of beautiful at the same time.
What were some of the challenges, if any?
In Yubari the weather turned on us and it began snowing. It kept wetting the lens … but as a result I think those imperfections actually added to the look. It was really cold and I think that feeling actually comes out in a lot of the Yubari shots.
Have you had any strange or creepy experiences in any of the abandoned buildings?
When I was shooting a school in Japan there was a huge taxidermy seal in a hallway. It was about seven feet long and five feet high. I thought it was a bear at first but even when I realised what it actually was it was still really creepy.
What’s involved in each shoot?
I average between two and three hours shooting. There’s not really a lot to it … It’s just me and the camera and the tripod – I don’t use lighting, I don’t use flash. The majority of my images are HDR so I bracket almost everything, which takes a lot longer that if I was otherwise shooting single exposures.
I think for HDR to really work as it’s intended, the scene needs to have contrasting tones so that’s the main thing I’m looking out for. It’s not always ideal lighting conditions in some of these buildings, so I have to work with what I have in front of me.
How do you process your photos and how long do you spend?
It usually takes about double the time of the shoot. I rough it out in Photomatix to get the exposure and shadows to a point where I can refine it further in Lightroom.
I try to keep the lighting effects as natural as possible and I pull the colours back to a point where it more closely represents what I was actually looking at when I was there. HDR will naturally oversaturate every image when you merge the images. I don’t think many people realise this and just leave the colours as they came out, or even worse, turn the saturation/vibrancy up.
I use the tone curve to fine-tune the colours and to add shadows and then try to sharpen the image as much as possible without making it look too crunchy.
What gear did you take and how it was different to what you usually shoot with?
I shot mostly with a Nikon D810 and an AF-S NIKKOR 14–24mm f/2.8G ED lens that Nikon was kind enough to lend me. I found the D810 to be far better than anything I’ve used previously. It has a better thought-out bracketing mode than what I am used to and catches light faster than my Nikon D7000 (which I also used).
I found that when shooting single exposures, I could bump the ISO up much higher than I could normally with my D7000 without the level of noise in the image going beyond fixable.
I’ve been using a loaned AF-S NIKKOR 14–24mm f/2.8G ED for about the last six months now and I use it for about 95 per cent of the photos I take. I can’t get enough of it. The sharpness is second to none and it’s perfect for small rooms. It allows you to really turn it into a landscape rather than a boring shot of one of the walls.
For outdoor landscapes it just gets everything. The Nikon D810 and the AF-S NIKKOR 14–24mm f/2.8G ED together are incredible. I think the shots I’ve come away with are superior to anything else I’ve captured to date.
I also used the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR, which added a new dimension to how I would normally shoot. I’ve never tried using a telephoto before this trip but I found it great for using on vantage points and sectioning off a part of the town, slightly from above to almost give a cross section of what could be seen. I also had my trusty AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, which has been my workhorse ever since I began taking photos. It’s good for low light, when I’m trying to shoot smaller details in dark rooms.
In Brett’s bag
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 14–24mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR,
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