Roving Eye: Left Behind

Published by The Big Issue, August 2013 [unedited copy].Left Behind

Europe’s abandoned buildings hold dust-coated scenes of beauty and anxiety.

By Adam Curley

It was still dark when Rebecca Litchfield met her friends at the edge of the lake. With a forest at their backs they inflated a five-person boat and ambled in, careful so as not to wet their equipment. It was the only feasible way to reach their target. By land the photographers would need to break past alarmed gates into a sprawling estate in England’s southeast, privately owned by a reportedly protective entrepreneur. Then they’d face the locked door of a lakeside passageway, which sat ahead of them as they rowed the boat slowly across the water.

As it is, Litchfield can’t or won’t tell how the group eventually made it inside the bowels of an underwater 19th century ballroom, built into the lake by the Surrey estate’s original owner, an eccentric embezzler. But as the sun came up and turned the mossy glass of the ballroom’s domed ceiling a kaleidoscope of greens, Litchfield knew she’d stumbled onto a photographer’s dream shoot. “It quite literally took my breath away,” she says. “It’s not everyday, after such a funny experience getting in, that you’re underneath a lake inside a beautiful, glorious ballroom made of glass.”

Breathtaking discoveries are Litchfield’s specialty. Since her first exploration of an abandoned building in 2005 – a century-old asylum – she has travelled Europe and the UK going on what she terms “explores”. A trip in early 2013 to Belgium led to many of the shots published here, including a farmhouse in which the beds were still made, food still in the larder, as well as a theatre blanketed by dust.

Litchfield’s images are beautiful and disquieting. The dust brings about a harmonious colour palette; the buildings and furnishings display old-world craft. Yet each scene is a human story lost to time. Questions arise: How can a life, decorated with the worldly possessions of a family or business, be so hastily exited and forgotten? What is searched for when examining the possessions of the departed? Signs of love? A connection to the past? The secret to immortality? Certainly, Litchfield’s photos of a rusted bicycle leaning against a bedframe and a school gymnasium with a basketball frozen in place at the foot of a hoop speak to a fear of death as well, perhaps, of violence and political unrest. (It’s important to note that Litchfield does not describe in notes the histories of the buildings or the fates of their occupants.)

Litchfield aims to alter her scenes as little as possible, rearranging furniture or items rarely to enhance lighting and composition. But the appeal of these shoots isn’t only the opportunity to document the forgotten. It’s the thrill of the quest. “I love the challenge of having to find a way in with out breaking anything because it makes it all the more worthwhile when you finally get in,” she says. “Of course I love the image-taking as well. Capturing the beauty so you can show others what they wouldn’t normally see is something very special.”

More of Rebecca Litchfield’s photography can be viewed at rebeccalitchfielddecay.blogspot.co.uk.

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