Urban exploration or urbex photography has become a global phenomenon, with catchy images of abandoned buildings attracting an ever-growing audience. And although French photographer Thomas Jorion is considered THE authority on all things urbex, he does not like to be typecast as your average adventurer. Sure, he loves exploring and remains on the look-out for pristine places and untouched locations, but the carefully composed analog results are a cut above the competition in terms of intellect and sensitivity. In our interview, he reveals why he feels attracted to silence.
Thomas, you have just returned from Italy. What kept you there?
I was in Verona to print my new book. Actually, this is the very first publication (published by La Martiniere) that assembles all of my projects, 160 photos across 220 pages, set for French release in early October. Hopefully, other publishers will follow suit in other markets, too.
Just this year, you have solo shows scheduled for Berlin, Rome, and Paris. Does this herald a new stage of your career?
It makes me really happy; it is all coming along nicely. I only started to work as a professional photographer in 2009 – after studying law and realizing that it was not my cup of tea. Later on, I spent some time working as a consultant in finance and re-insurance. Meanwhile, I have always had a passion for photography and bought my first camera when I was 18, but it was good to take some time before crossing over into professional photography. Now, at 37, I know that I need to think about money and paying my taxes.
You are famous for your images of abandoned buildings. What is so fascinating about urban decay?
I grew up in a Paris suburb. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time exploring with friends. We would look for abandoned homes and smoke a few secret cigarettes. Whenever I spent some time in these buildings I would feel different; they always triggered some very strong emotions. Back then, I was a fairly shy kid – I guess I still am to some extent – so I found it much easier to explore empty places than talking to people. Nowadays, I am a bit more confident, but deep inside I still like to choose the easy way and seek out quiet places.
The entire world is covered in ruins and abandoned places. How do you choose your motifs and travel destinations?
Now that I am doing entire series I like to draw up a framework and guideline before I start to investigate or search for a region or specific place. I check photos on flickr and Google or look for damaged roofs on Google Street View. Once I am on a trip, some houses speak to me and I simply follow my gut. There are a lot of empty buildings in Eastern Europe, but when I visited Romania, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, I became quite upset. People are so poor that they remove the metal from buildings for resale. They take the houses apart until only pure concrete remains. At the same time, many empty buildings are guarded by security. The whole thing is much easier in East Germany where I found a lot of interesting Soviet army barracks or industrial locations that are more intact and interesting. Generally speaking, more affluent countries tend to proffer more inspiring motifs. In wealthy societies, people simply don’t care about old and abandoned buildings. In Japan, for example, I came across an old hotel that was still fully furnished. All the furniture and tableware was still in place. Amazing!
To get the best shots, you actually break into buildings, right? So the whole thing is illegal?
Well, 98 per cent of the time it is technically illegal. So far, I have only had problems in the United States, but there it would happen every time! They are so crazy about security. In Alabama, for example, we managed to access a building, but the moment we left, security tried to arrest us. We ran, but they caught us – and after just a few minutes we found ourselves surrounded by nine cops who wanted to charge us with trespassing. I was very nervous since they seemed extremely serious. At the end, it all turned out okay and they simply let us go. In Germany or France, on the other hand, you can always negotiate and pretend: No I’m not really here! (laughs)
Sounds exciting – please tell us more about your working process!
The actual exploration takes quite a long time. Once I have found the right building, I drop my backpack and just look around. It is a bit like composing music. You write a note and keep going until you have created a perfect melody. After setting up my camera, it might take up to 30 minutes before I take the shot. I don’t use any additional lighting, only natural light, which is true and perfect. In America, even abandoned and condemned structures still have power and I sometimes make use of this. I develop all of the films at home, which takes a lot of focus to avoid mistakes. I missed, or messed up, some really great shots – it’s terrible! Sometimes, it takes a whole day to reach a location, so I can’t just go back. But well, that is part of the game.
Why not just use digital?
I prefer shooting analog and use a large format 4×5” camera. Many times, length of exposure is more than one minute. It feels more natural and intimate that way. Digital is good, but I think it is better suited to other applications like fashion or weddings. I prefer working with color negatives because they exude an organic feel that I appreciate. Digital is much colder; its perfection is artificial.
What are the most inspiring cities you have visited to date? And why?
Most of the time, I don’t actually work in urban areas, but in smaller villages or in the countryside. In Italy, you have these very picturesque villas and every room is amazingly elaborate – it is incredibly beautiful. I have also visited some impressive locations in downtown Milan or Berlin, but they are tainted by graffiti and traces of people who have come to explore – I prefer completely untouched places.
My most inspiring moment was probably during a trip to Bulgaria in 2010. I was on my way to a communist monument on top of a mountain. The road was icy, there was a snowstorm, and I had to park the car. After a long walk I finally arrived at the structure. It was really cold and silent, except for the wind. While listening to Miles Davis I took the Blizka picture.
What will be on display in Berlin? How did you get in touch with the Podbielski Contemporary Gallery?
Pierre André Podbielski loved my work and met my American representative, Philip Xie, at an exhibition in Basle. He now represents me in Germany. My Berlin show will feature pieces from my “Révolution éteinte – Revolution off” series: It focuses on the final throes of the industrial revolution. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, people built plenty of beautiful structures, even when their purpose was industry. I have captured some striking abandoned places in Japan, France, the USA, and Germany. There is a strong focus on light and color.
So, if I wanted my personal Jorion – how much would I have to pay?
That depends – prices start at €3000 and then go up to €5000.
What’s next on your schedule and agenda?
Right now, I am planning an extended expedition to French Guinea in September, together with a local guide. Furthermore, I am working on a series of mysterious architecture, but it’s still too early to tell!
Well, we are looking forward to seeing the results! Many thanks for your time – and all the best for the future!
For more information and some stunning imagery by Thomas Jorion, please check out his website or visit one of his 2013 solo exhibitions at
Gallery Podbielski Contemporary, Berlin – September 12th to November 9th 2013
Gallery Sala 1, Fotografia – Festival Internazionale di Roma, Rome – October 8th to November 15th 2013
Gallery Insula, Paris – October 10th to December 21st 2013
Text and interview: Romy Uebel
All images including header image: Thomas Jorion