I'm browsing through the pocket edition of Henk Van Rensbergen's 'Abandoned places', the fifth in the series containing, according to the back cover, 'the photographer's most iconic photo's of the past 25 years, including some unpublished material', to see what he has to say on the subject.
On that same cover, the Wall Street Journal is quoted, stating the pictures are haunting. I don't exactly feel that way about them, at least not about the selection in front of me.
Contrary to a lot of urbex material out there, this book doesn't show dark spaces with scarce light seeping in through cracks and crannies. On the contrary, the photographer took great care to light and expose his scenes, to show things that differ from today's ordinary (because it's out of fashion, outdated, or just ... beautiful), wasting away.
Above all, his pictures carry a sense of sadness.
Anyway, he himself explains that 'Abandoned places touch a sensitive nerve. We are curious to know why these buildings were abandoned. Who lived there? What happened there? - the questions one asks when investigating a vanished civilisation. [...] Ultimately, it is the spectator who rewrites the story of what took place: observation and imagination waken the buildings back to life.'
Seems very much on the spot to me.
As it happens (yes, the long introduction is finished, I'm finally getting to the point), back in 2018, I was asked by Ex Situ to shoot an ongoing excavation in the St. John Baptist and St. Eligius church in the city of Anzegem. A protected monument since 1979, the building was destroyed by an intense fire in 2014.
Basically only the walls and the tower survived the blaze; the outer doors were completely charred. Because of the city's intentions to repair and partly repurpose the building, a mandatory excavation was set up.
I arrived in the afternoon of a dreary day, basically just in time to get some info on the preliminary results of the excavation, and see the archaeologists pack things up and call it a day. I took some shots while I was there, and helped by the weather, that initial, familiar feeling of gloom snuck in.
As the assignment consisted of documenting the archaeologists working in the field, I made an appointment for a new visit, timed in such a way that more of the inner area would be excavated and cleaned up.
That second visit came with a promise of sunshine, which was fulfilled about an hour and a half after my arrival. Then it happened: the rather neutral atmosphere of people involved in the scientific analysis of the building's past, took a more cheerful turn when the sun finally broke through.
It was easy to relive the exhilaration of the team when they told me about the preserved floor they'd found a week earlier.
It was a feeling contrasted however, by the mood of the visitors during an open trench day a few days prior, standing in what remains of the building that, in its lost glory, helped mark their friends' and family members' important events, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
The camera kept firing, shot after shot, and the rhythm of the clicks sped up when the hard shadows of the windows, of the overhead beams and arches, and of the supports no longer disappeared behind a stray cloud.
The afternoon sun, shining on the bricks, laid bare and heated to a dark red, a deep orange or a fiery yellow, brought me back to a 1996 visit to Italy, and Pompeii in particular.
The damaged plasterwork peeling from the walls made the illusion complete, and the reflection of the hard light on the loamy, ochre soil added a golden sheen to the underside of the arches and to the walls. To witness the excavation of a Classical building somewhere around the Mediterranean is something that doesn't happen to me every day.
Seeing my enthusiasm (well, it was kinda hard to miss), the senior archaeologist arranged for me to be able to shoot the derelict building after working hours (for which I'm obviously very grateful, as well as for the trust Monument Vandekerckhove nv placed in me by having me on their excavation without supervision), facilitating a third and a fourth visit. The former was about equally sunny (but later in the day), the latter was a bit of an experiment with flash at dusk (here).
After a selection of the files was prepared for Ex Situ, the harvest of the four visits was left to rest on my hard drive for about 2 years, until I finally had some time to cull the whole batch, and process the shots I wanted to keep.
While processing, a final layer was added to my connection to the ruin: way past the gloom, past the rational mindset of scientific research, and past the evocation of a Classical golden age, I decided to fully surrender to the warm, reddish-yellow early evening light of my third visit.
What came out was a fictitious memory of an evening in Havana, a place I've never been to. I saw the Havana I'd reconstructed by having read about it, or by having gazed at pictures that clearly only show a very specific part of town in a very specific way, with that inimitable flair and patina we all seem to recognise and associate with it.
No matter if the memory was real or not, or my reconstruction accurate or not: it was as good a time as any to finally crack open that bottle of Havana Club Selección de Maestros stashed away in the back of my liquor cabinet.