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Interview With Matt Emmett

We recently caught up with Pentax K-3 user Matt Emmett to find out more about his photography.

| Pentax K-3 in Professional Interviewed

All images © Matt Emmett

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 1

Hi Matt! Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into photography?

I’m Matt Emmett, a designer / photographer at a toy company.

My father bought me a Pentax ME Super on my 19th Birthday, taught me how to use it and this passion for imagery has shaped my life ever since. In my early twenties I improved my photography by using the camera to document my travels around South East Asia, and then returned to art college at 28 to do an HND in photography which filled in some of the technical gaps.

A few years ago a friend bought his first DSLR and asked me to show him the basics. He had done some online research and suggested an ex MOD jet engine research establishment that was now abandoned where we could do the first practical lesson. I felt uneasy about trespassing on the site but decided to go for it because the photos I had seen online looked really impressive. I wasn’t prepared for how the experience would affect me and after climbing the fences and exploring hanger-sized structures filled with strange, almost alien machinery I became instantly obsessed. 11 trips and almost 100 hours were spent searching for and photographing the altitude test cells, turbine halls, power plant and 1950's control rooms. During this time I came to realise, if you break the rules and go to places you are not technically permitted to capture your images, you can show your audience something new and fairly unique when compared with other over subscribed fields of photography. Since then I have spent last few years travelling around Northern Europe seeking out industrial remnants, hospitals, bunkers, schools, houses and a myriad of other buildings. 

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 7

Did you always want to be a photographer or is it something that you fell into?
Photography is something I have really enjoyed as a hobby but it has steadily grown into something that brings in some additional income. It would be great to be able to do it full time but I think I've a way to go before I can give up my designer role. I am just really enjoying one of the greatest hobbies and the amazing locations that it is taking me to.

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 3

You're described as an urban exploration (UE) and heritage photographer. Can you tell us what this entails?
Before I got into shooting at abandoned sites I was into potholing, spending my weekends wriggling along wet, muddy and rocky crawls deep beneath the hills of South Wales. Some of the places waiting to be 'discovered' in these vast cave systems are visually breathtaking and I was soon padding a bag with layers of plastic bags and old clothes in an effort to protect the camera from an environment that kills cameras with ease.

After replacing two DSLRs in quick succession I decided to give up and just enjoy the caving. Once I discovered UE photography I realised I could retain the buzz of exploration and discovery in an experience that didn't so readily destroy my kit (although I've still lost a few lenses). At times it feels very similar and is often referred to as urban caving. I plan to start caving again and have discovered new products to protect equipment so I hope to restart shooting caves soon.

A typical shoot at an abandoned location involves the following:

  • Discovering where the location is, either by online research or asking a photographer who has shot there already.
  • Preparation and packing of your bag, for example a subterranean location will require lighting to shoot so pack lightly but according to the locations requirements.
  • Travel to the location and carefully park the car away from the site perimeter. Sometimes entry to certain sites is best done very early in the morning, this can sometimes mean setting the alarm at 3am if you have to travel a long way.
  • Avoiding getting seen entering the site, otherwise your planned shoot can end up pretty short in duration, not great if you have travelled a long way.
  • Finding the money shots is the easy part but these will also be the same shots that many other people have. Spend some time really looking hard for angles or view points that may not have been shot before.
  • Leave the site quietly, getting caught at a location can mean the people planning to visit in future have a harder time.
  • Process the images at home and enjoy the experience all over again!

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 3

What draws you to urbex photography?
There is a thrill in exploring an environment that allows you to step into a previously unknown world and discover something first hand, taking your time and noting the details as you go. Having a camera with me allows me to prolong that thrill long after the building is gone. It’s an often quoted cliché but there really is a strong sense of palpable history present in abandoned buildings, the items left behind like paperwork in a drawer or plaques or signs in an industrial plant, allow you a glimpse into the past. I consider experiencing these places to be a great privilege. From the point of view of a photographer there is a total lack of distraction in the stillness of a derelict building; the sound and movement associated with people or workers has been removed, for me this makes them far more sensory than when they are occupied. Your mind can easily focus on what is around you and takes in so much more. The building’s voice is clear and a character and visual aesthetic emerges that was much harder to notice than if it were a busy, populated environment. Capturing this character and stillness comes across well in the photos and is something my audience tells me they love about the images.

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 4

What's your favourite place that you've explored so far and why?
It's hard to choose as there are so many truly fantastic places this hobby has taken me, for me many of them rival the best ‘official’ world heritage sites. The lack of other people, the palpable sense of past and stillness that hangs over them often gives them an edge over places like the Pyramids or Angkor Wat, at least for me.

The previously mentioned jet engine research establishment was my first and still favourite location, it was like exploring a vast space ship or walking onto the set from Ridley Scott's Alien. A fairly dangerous playground for adults and a wonderland for photographers.

However, there have been plenty of other places like the pre-development Battersea Power Station or some of the subterranean Victorian spaces beneath London that have ticked all the right boxes for me. The best part about this hobby is that new places pop up all the time or previously unknown locations get discovered. Trips in the near future will hopefully be taking me to subterranean nuclear missile launch bunkers in the US and the seriously beautiful abandoned villa's of Italy.

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 6

Do you think urban explorers get a lot of bad press?
The people I have met so far in the UE (urban exploration) community have good attitudes and treat locations with respect, however and as in any community comprised from a broad section of society, there will always be a few who don't play by the accepted rules. Entry at derelict locations is often not an issue and in many places you can simply walk in and take your pictures. Problems arise when people arrive, sometimes after a long journey and find no way to access the location, in the vast majority of cases people simple leave empty handed. Causing damage to gain entry takes the activity from essentially a civil matter into a criminal matter and rarely happens fortunately.

People who access sensitive sites like MOD land or active industrial or infrastructure sites fall under a different activity called 'Infiltration', This is an area that has been getting quite a bit of mixed press lately due to some high profile court cases brought by Transport for London.

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 5

What kit do you use and why do you find it ideal for exploration photography?
I use the Pentax K3 with the DA 12-24mm, DA 20-40mm Limited and an old manual 50mm prime. I love the level of detail the K3 can resolve in often very gloomy interiors and there's a pleasing lack of noise in the shots too. I feel much more confident about this cameras ability to survive knocks and getting wet as it's a very solid, weather sealed and well made camera. The learning curve when I made the switch from Canon was fast as the camera is very intuitive with the menu and settings system very well laid out.

Being a Pentax ambassador has opened up some great opportunities too, last month I was invited to the Pentax 645Z experience weekend in the Lakes with Will Cheung. I got a loan of a 645Z and two lenses for 3 weeks prior to the event and went back to shoot some of my favourite locations with this powerhouse of a camera. When I processed my first shot taken with the camera it was a real 'jaw on the floor' moment. Medium format lends itself very well to architectural photography and I would love to own one as it ramped up the detail I could capture and gives me the option of producing extremely large prints, something that would be beneficial for my gallery sales.

I also use two excellent Scurion lamps for lighting up the gloomier or totally dark spaces I shoot in, they provide a very bright and wide spread of white light. Portable and very sturdy and well engineered.

Interview With Matt Emmett: Matt Emmett 8

If you had to give three top tips to someone starting out in urban exploration photography, what would they be?

1) Sign up to a UE website like Talk Urbex, Oblivion State or Derelict Places and open discussion with more experienced members. Try and see if someone will allow you to tag along on one of their trips. Often having done some photography already of something near to you will smooth the process. People need to see you have a genuine interest in the subject.

2) Research your location in advance. Try and know what the situation is there, where is the best but less obvious place to park, what is the best way to approach the location, is there on site security? Google maps and street view is a massively important resource for achieving some of this.

3) If security or the owner discover you at a location, be polite, explain what you are doing but leave as soon as you are asked to. Knowing your rights regarding trespass and as a photographer is also important in this situation. In most cases owners are understanding about the reasons for wanting to shoot there but are also concerned over health and safety liability issues.

For more information on Matt, take a look at his website and Facebook page. Matt currently has an exhibition at the Seven Dials Timberyard, London until February 2015.



Disclaimer: Please note, the photographer interviewed undertakes 'urban exploration' at their own risk. ePHOTOzine does not encourage these activities and we hold no responsibility should you attempt what you see / read here.  

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Photographs taken using the Pentax K-3

Hydrangea SkeletonSunset on the Rochdale CanalTake a Phone BreakIce on the Rochdale CanalNesting MaterialMill Chimmney Hebden BridgeIckworthThe Cat in the TreeBolbitiaceae FungiTulips and ToadstoolsClose - upRuins of St Thomas a Becket Church Heptonstall.Wired UpStand and DeliverPretty in pink

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