Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Photographic pleasures, again: Opacity.us

Opacity.us is full of mesmerizing photographs by the talented, enigmatic and handsome 'Mr. Motts'. This addictive site features gorgeous images from 'urban exploration' – the practice of entering closed or abandoned buildings or spaces, seeing what's there, and (ideally) leaving without damaging or removing any of the contents.

Opacity.us could attract many different audiences: people into steampunk culture, Goths, architecture enthusiasts, and photography fans. Some buildings in the galleries were built in the mid-to-late 19th century, and often many attractive architectural details remain intact. Elegant shapes and finely carved or cast details assert their beauty among broken windows and graffiti. Corrosion, peeling paint, water damage, and other decay produces striking visual effects, rich with texture and color. In some of the more remote buildings, plant life has forced its way in, turning enclosed courtyards into little forests, sending green vines or branches up walls or through glassless windows. Moss softens the appearance of stark walls and floors. Practical, functional spaces somehow acquire sensual qualities through Mott's lens. Each location becomes a strange alternate reality; full of vaguely familiar objects but eerily out of sync with the world you think you know.

The mood set by these photographs can vary from dreamlike to nostalgic to frightening. Somehow he knows how to frame a shot of an empty chair so that the image makes the viewer wonder about the people who once occupied these buildings. You're almost compelled to think of the lonely patients, children in state schools, factory workers, priests and nuns, the nurses and doctors who cared for the people confined in these sprawling spaces. Their absence from the spaces makes one curious about their presence, particularly when human touches appear. Papers and dishes sit on desks or in kitchens as though someone has stepped away for moments instead of years. A medicine cabinet still holds toothbrushes labeled with the names of vanished patients.

Locations run a fascinating gamut: mental hospitals, a crypt, old prisons, schools, a train yard, factories, hotels, chapels and other types of institutional buildings. Many sites were once asylums for the tubercular or mentally ill, or 'isolation hospitals' for people suffering from various diseases. There's even a series of atmospheric industrial images from a Stella Artois brewery in Belgium. The latest photo galleries feature abandoned locations in Belgium: a convent with arched doorways inside and out, and an amusement park where two ostriches still wander among old bumper cars and giant slides. The photographs are well composed and visually powerful.

The photographer sometimes employs certain techniques to create a particular look, such as long exposures or digital manipulation of color, but usually the 'look' comes from a keen understanding of how to work with available light, and a distinctive aesthetic sensibility.

Urban exploration is a somewhat controversial subject. Most of the locations are private property, and they are usually patrolled by security guards or local police. Entering abandoned or closed buildings is illegal, of course, and indulging one's curiosity = trespassing in most jurisdictions. There is a considerable risk of injury from rotting floorboards, broken glass, asbestos, mold, needles discarded by drug users, or other hazards. Motts clearly states that the photographs and information on his site are for "historic and enjoyment purposes only" and does not encourage others to duplicate his efforts by visiting the sites; indeed, he often conceals their true names and locations as a means of protecting them from vandalism. However, some buildings are well known, and historical information is provided for these. Many of the buildings have burned down or been destroyed, so there's a preservation aspect as to this photo site.

Images are searchable by keyword. There is a comments function for each photo. Some commenters are past employees or residents of mental health institutions, hospitals, or similar institutions and the true-life stories they share often provide context and understanding of the equipment or physical arrangements of the rooms. The reasons for the construction of half-walls surrounding beds on an open ward become clear, as does the widespread popularity of hydrotherapy for psychiatric patients, evidenced by the many sizes and shapes of bathtubs in asylums. It gets grim sometimes; Motts doesn't hesitate to photograph empty morgues, iron lungs, gurneys, or carcasses of animals that take shelter in abandoned structures. However, his approach turns images of the skeletal wings of a bird into a study of its graceful structure.

Viewing a series of Opacity photos can feel like taking a walk through Sleeping Beauty's Castle years before the rescuer fights through the thorns, bearing hope and a kiss. The building and its ghosts sleep, waiting for someone to arrive so that it can live again.