Niki Feijen photographs a world long forgotten. A world which most of us would rather not visit — full of rotting beams, crumbling masonry, and mildew blooms. Yet through his attention to detail and use of light, he makes these abandoned spaces look… beautiful. Poetic even. Coats are left on racks, empty bottles collect dust, and moss grows unchecked.
We spoke with the 38-year-old Dutch photographer this week, in the lead-up to Halloween, about his imagery, eye for detail, and most unexplainable encounters.
Did you study photography formally or is it a hobby turned profession?
I never studied photography nor did I have any photography courses. I just started shooting at a young age and went from holiday shoots to rally races and concert photography, then, finally, to abandoned buildings.
Why did that subject matter initially appeal to you?
For me there are three main reasons to shoot abandoned buildings. First of all: the amazing architecture of old buildings. They don’t build ’em like that anymore! Staircase railings for example, carefully forged and sculpted by hand — a massive job that maybe took months to finish.
Second, there is this cool thing that nature always reclaims its grounds. I’ve seen it five years ago in the Chernobyl Exclusion zone too. No matter how well the structures are built, eventually nature reclaims it. Green is growing through roofs, moss is turning an old bed into a beautiful green blanket.
Third, it’s a bit of preserving history. Most of the places I photograph will crumble and finally disappear. The only things that will be left are my photographs and the memories of the people who lived there.
Some of your images clearly use HDR (high dynamic range) but it’s very subtle, in some cases you wouldn’t realize it if you weren’t looking for it. Not to steal any secrets but what’s your process or technique?
HDR is often misused. Its sliders are turned to the max and the results are horrible — with over saturated colors. But that is not necessary at all, HDR can be used in a very subtle way. Let me first explain why I use HDR.
I try to recreate the same scene that I saw there. The light spectrum your eye can capture is much, much wider than a camera can capture. For example if you want to photograph a dark room with a window there would be a very large difference (in exposure) between the brightest and the darkest spot. Your photo would either be a perfectly lit room with overexposed, blown out windows, which would, of course, be the case since the windows need much less exposure time than the room. Or you would have a perfect window but with a dark blob as a room. You can use artificial lighting to light up the room (flashes, headlamps, etc), or you can use High Dynamic Range with exposure bracketing.
To capture the whole spectrum, I capture several shots with different exposures using a tripod. A short exposure shot to capture the windows and in steps longer exposures to capture all the details in the dark areas. Those photos will be combined into one new photo, the windows from the short exposure shot and the room from the longer exposures. Then you use the sliders to get the colors as close as possible to the real thing. I always capture shots with my phone too as a reference. Most of the time there is not much work left. Perhaps some lens correction to fix the distortion from my wide angle lens or use a tool to soften the noise a bit. The final result is a hyperrealistic photo which mimics the exact same thing you would see. As if you would be standing in the location yourself.
There’s been talk recently about the destructive nature of certain “urban explorers.” People who are painting, looting, tearing out copper, etc. Your work showcases an undisturbed view of some of these places that have not yet been stripped. How do you view the other explorers and how do they affect what you do?
I even avoid the words “urbex” or “urban exploring” because of these people. Once there was a code: take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footsteps, respect the location. However, there is a whole new breed of explorers that do not respect the location at all. They break doors, windows and force their way in. In my eight years of photographing abandoned places I have never broken anything to get inside. If a location is closed, it’s closed and you move on the the next spot. Every time I post a photo I get the same question: Where is this location? There is a good reason to keep the locations hidden. If the locations are public then the place will be exposed to vandals, graffiti taggers, and (copper) thieves. I have seen perfectly preserved places destroyed within a matter of weeks.
It being so close to Halloween, do you have any stories that fit the holiday? Scary nights spent in a place or creepy encounters?
I do not believe in ghosts or the paranormal but I have had several creepy encounters:
While checking a list of possible abandoned churches with a small crew on a trip in the Czech Republic there was this church looking over a small village. You could see that the church had been abandoned for a long time. The first thing we checked was the door — I’ve squeezed my large body through a window then realized afterwards the door was open. In this case the door was closed. When looking through the window my mouth fell wide open. There were nine ghost-like figures in the pews. Nine figures covered in white shrouds. Wow, that was not what we expected. When we finally found an entry to the church and very carefully entered the place, my heart rate had already doubled. Maybe the figures were some religious ritual, could there be bodies underneath the shrouds? I did not want to disturb them and I took my shots. After a year we discovered the truth about the ghosts. They were placed in the church as part of a growing art project. More and more ghosts were put in the church until 35 shrouded figures sat.
It looked much creepier though with just nine.
The weirdest story has to do with a very large abandoned hotel. Once, it was a majestic place, the flagship of luxury hotels. It had been abandoned for more than two decades. When we arrived at the hotel all the crazy things started. Searching for an entry, I heard a door slam shut inside. “Ok, somebody must be in there. Could it be another explorer? Maybe even a homeless guy, junky, or security?” I did not feel completely at ease but nevertheless we continued to search for the cause of the mysterious events. While looking at the upper floors I saw a curtain move, like somebody ducked away. “There is definitely somebody in here and trying to hide.” We found an entry — well hidden but in plain sight — and prepared to enter the hotel.
Moments later, I set my first steps inside. You always feel this tension when you step inside a location but this was different. The hotel made me really feel not welcome. The other guys experienced the same weird feeling. I took a deep breath, ignored it, and marched on. Shortly after that, I stood inside the jaw dropping lobby. No vandalism, no graffiti, and it hadn’t been looted. The weird thing was that there was no dust at all. Left behind for more than 20 years and not a single flake of dust. I felt like I had travelled back in time. You needed very little imagination to see the former guests sitting in the luxurious chairs, smoking cuban cigars, and sipping their champagne. Both the old dining room and the former casino were as stunning as the lobby. The chandeliers in the casino were huge, and even more impressive than the ones in the lobby.
I walked upstairs and setup my camera to take a shot of the long, red carpeted corridor. My camera gave some error and it did nothing except display “ERR” in the display. I could take just one shot and after that I had to turn the camera off and on again to take the next one. Since I need several different exposures for each photograph this was a very annoying hassle. “Why did this have to happen now, inside one of the most amazing abandoned places I’ve ever been in?” One of my buddies came up to me and asked what the problem was. I explained it to him and he gave me this weird look. He told me a few of his batteries that had been charged that morning were dead. Just drained to zero. The same thing had happened with one of the other guys. A shiver went down my spine. “What is going on here? There surely must be some logical reason for all this crazy stuff” — but I could not figure it out.
It was time to hit the upper floor. The last part I needed to shoot. The floor looked exactly the same as the one below. As I walked through the corridor, one of my friends comes out of a bedroom and walks in front of me towards the corner. All of a sudden he jumps back. “Watch the floor!” he says. “There’s a really soft spot in there.” It’s common for floors to rot and get soft when rain leaks through the roof, so I carefully checked the spot he pointed out. However I could not discover a weak place. “There is no soft spot in there, dude,” I told him as I jumped up and down. He looked at me in disbelief and joined me on the solid floor. His eyes went bigger and swore to me he felt his foot sinking into the floor just a few minutes ago.
“Okay, maybe it is time to get out now,” I thought. I had all the shots I wanted to take and we gathered downstairs to leave. We went out through the emergency exit and a cold breeze hit me in the face. I never felt so happy being outside again. We never found anybody inside, so I guess the slamming door and moving curtain were just the wind. I hope.
When I got home I was preparing to send my camera to Nikon, so they could fix the ERR message in the display. However when I turned it on the message was gone. I could snap multiple shots after each other and I never got the same error again.
It seems like you have more of these than the average person.
One of the last shots I processed featured a piano and a mirror in an abandoned villa. When I uploaded the photo to my website I noticed something weird in the photo. It looked like three people were standing in the mirror. Believing it was a processing glitch I checked the original RAW images straight out the camera. Guess what ? The three figures were also there. I looked at other photographs from the same room to see if there was anything behind me that could have reflected in the mirror. Of course, this was not the case. There was just a blank wall behind me. Did I just capture three ghosts? Ghost hunters will definitely say “yes” but I don’t think so. My guess is that there had been some photo in front of the mirror for many, many years and somehow the silver in the photo transferred to the mirror. Definitely a moment to remember though
**For more information on Niki Feijen check out his website or Instagram. Also, check out his newly released book Frozen. For gallery information or a list of upcoming shows check his exhibition list.**