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The Light-Painter of Mojave D: An Interview with Troy PaivaAuthor: Simon Sellars • Jun 6th, 2008 •
Category: alternate worlds, America, architecture, deep time, entropy, enviro-disaster, flying, interviews, Lead Story, Philip K. Dick, photography, science fiction, speed & violence, surrealism, urban decay, urban ruins, visual art
ABOVE: ‘Joshua Says GO!’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A 30s twin-tail Lockheed Electra does the big sleep at Aviation Warehouse. Night, full moon, red-gelled strobe flash. Canon 20D.’
The photography of Troy Paiva treats us to canted visions of a crumbling, post-industrial America — decommissioned military bases, aircraft ‘boneyards’, abandoned desert towns. The scenarios are all shot at night and the work is presented straight out of the camera, mostly untouched by Photoshopping or other post-processing techniques. Troy uses available light, such as moonlight or sodium light (the latter of course plentiful in the modern-day archaeological ruins he haunts), but he also uniquely marks the shots with his light-painting skills (the introduction of hand-held, hand-applied light during the exposure) and the unearthly effects of red, green and blue-gelled strobe flashes. The cumulative effect is startling: like stills from a David Lynch film in a parallel universe in which Lynch, instead of adapting Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart for his twisted desert noir masterpiece, had chosen Ballard’s Vermilion Sands instead.
Although Troy began to read Ballard only comparatively recently, his photography fits the definition of ‘Ballardian’ in the dictionary sense: ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.’ But it also mirrors a significant strain that seems to fly by those consistently emphasising the ‘bleak’ in that dictionary statement. This is the ‘carnival in suburbia’ atmosphere that has always bubbled below the surface in Ballard but which flowered forth so vividly in books such as The Unlimited Dream Company and Hello America and in stories such as ‘The Ultimate City’, the latter two featuring abandoned American cities of the near future brought back to life virtually by sheer dint of imagination. Similarly, Troy doesn’t so much wallow in decay and entropy as he reanimates the ruins, surging new power through the bones of post-industrialism.
This interview has taken a bit of time to happen. I first made contact with Troy late last year, leaving a placeholder for a possible future interview. It was only recently, when a visitor to this site, Henry Swanson, left some interesting comments about Troy’s work that I was reminded of my duty. I subsequently invited Henry to help me out with the interrogation and the results of our survey into the world of Mr Paiva are here below for your scrutiny. But after all that, it was good timing in the end: Troy’s second book of photography, Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, is due for publication in early July.
NOTE: Although I have tried my best to include a representative selection of Troy’s photos, I found it almost impossible to do justice to the scope, beauty and sheer volume of his work. If after reading this interview you find yourself wanting more examples, my advice is to start either at Troy’s official site or his flickr page and work your way from there.
I had arrived in Vermilion Sands three months earlier. A retired pilot, I was painfully coming to terms with a broken leg and the prospect of never flying again… I found a shallow basin among the dunes… The owner had gone, abandoning the hangar-like building to the sand-rays and the desert, and on some half-formed impulse I began to drive out each afternoon.
J.G. Ballard, ‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’, first published in 1967, collected in Vermilion Sands (1971).
SIMON: Troy, when we first talked about your photos, you said, ‘People constantly refer to my photography as “Ballardian”.’ I can certainly see the connections, especially with Vermilion Sands and its sense of decadent ruin, a lurid, near-future civilisation lost in the desert sands. But is Ballard actually an influence on your work?
TROY: No. I came to him much later. I enjoyed the Vermilion Sands stories very much when I read them a couple of years ago and I can see why people connect my work with his writing. There is that sense of desolation and isolation, the fetishism of decay and destruction and a general sense of being outside the realm of normal society, as well as the melancholia of straggling on after everything has ended.
Same thing happened with Kerouac’s On the Road. After reading it recently I thought, ‘Wow, no wonder people keep saying that to me.’ Much of my photography stems from massive, epic road trips that criss-cross the southwest, where I cover thousands of miles in a couple of very surreal days. The mythology of The Road figures in a lot of my work. I guess these similarities show that human experience is roughly the same for all of us, we just have different ways of expressing it. See also Philip K. Dick.
The books of my formative years were George Stewart’s pastoral apocalypse classic Earth Abides, Hunter S. Thompson’s surrealist freak-out, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Stand, Stephen King’s pop-epic story of The End. Those three books kinda say it all about where my approach to the road, abandonment and the ‘post-everything’ world lies. And the movie Vanishing Point – that encapsulates my own road-trip mythology perfectly.
HENRY: ‘And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The last American hero, the electric Shinta, the demigod, the super driver of the Golden West.’
TROY: ‘And beans, lotsa beans.’ Man, I love that movie. It’s totally what the desert is about for me.
ABOVE: ‘Color Television’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Behind an abandoned restaurant in the sleepy Mojave Desert town of Yermo, CA. The density of the sky was caused by the October Fires in SoCal. You could taste every breath. Night, full moon 2 minute exposure, natural, yellow and red-gelled strobe and flashlights. Composite of 2 images.’
HENRY: There are other things your work brings to mind, like the Mojave Desert Phone Booth.
TROY: Love it. Wish I’d had a chance to shoot it! I got lost on a series of endless dirt roads trying to find it, many years ago. Almost got stuck and had to give up. It’s been gone for at least five years now.
SIMON: What exactly is it about the desert that appeals?
TROY: I just love the expansiveness and isolation – it’s primal and uncompromising. I love that you can go for days without talking to anyone. It’s a land of outcasts and oddballs, where non-conformists can thrive. An incredible volume of American mythology is based on the desert and Western expansion, from the Gold Rush to Route 66. I’ve even heard my photography described as an epitaph for the mythology of the American West.
Dr Paul Ricci was thinking: So this is New York – or was. Greatest city of the twentieth century, here you heard the heart-beat of international finance, industry and entertainment. Now it’s as remote from the real world as Pompeii or Persepolis. It’s a fossil, my God, preserved here on the edge of the desert like one of those ghost towns in the Wild West. Did my ancestors really live in these vast canyons? They came on a cattle boat from Naples in the 1890s, and a century later went back to Naples on a cattle boat. Now I’m making another stab at it.
Still, the place has possibilities, all sorts of dormant things might be lying here, waiting to be roused.
J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981).
SIMON: Your bio says your work is about ‘the evolution and eventual abandonment of the communities, structures and social iconography spawned during this country’s 20th century western expansion’. How did it come to be this way?
TROY: It’s simply who I am. When I was 13 my family went on a road trip, one of many, and we somehow found ourselves bouncing down 15 miles of bad dirt road to the classic ‘wild west’ ghost town of Bodie, arguably the most authentic ghost town in America. Today Bodie is kept in a state of ‘arrested decay’ and is a major tourist destination. Much of the road is paved and the parking lot is filled with tour buses, and in the summer the town is crawling with thousands of tourists from around the world. But back in the early 70s you could drive right into the centre of town and park. When we climbed out of the car we found we were the only ones there! I wandered that town alone for hours, slack-jawed at the thought that people would just walk away from furnished houses and businesses, a whole city, and never come back. I was hooked for life.
ABOVE: ‘Texaco Marine’ by Troy Paiva. ‘North Shore Marina, Salton Sea, 2001. Most, if not all, the letters are gone by now. Night, 100% full moon/star light, 8 minutes, f5.6.’
SIMON: I understand it’s your Salton Sea work that gets most of the Vermilion Sands comparisons.
TROY: Yes. The Salton Sea is an enormous, accidentally created salt lake in a remote corner of the SoCal desert. In the 50s developers built elaborate resorts and golf courses around its shores and the department of interior stocked it with game fish. By the 60s it had become an idyllic combination of Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs, half outdoorsman’s paradise, half retreat for the Hollywood elite. By the 70s, however, two years of record rain caused massive floods and the lake, which has no outlet, began to fester and decay. The smell became unbearable as massive algae blooms died off. Anyone who could afford to move away did. By the 90s fish and birds were dying on a biblical scale – in the millions – triggered by the algae blooms. It’s a horrible, filthy place rimmed with rotten modernist resorts, marinas and trailer parks (most of which have been torn down now), and decaying dead fish and birds. Today the Salton Sea feels very much like the epicentre for the end of the world, a poster child for mankind’s failure to tame nature.
Ballardian for sure!
Ronnov-Jessen: [In your novella ‘The Ultimate City’] one could say that the dynamism represented by New York is actually the dynamism of decay.
Ballard: No, I don’t accept that. The city is abandoned, and with it, suspended in time, is a whole set of formulae for expressing human energy, imagination, ambition. The clock has stopped, but it will be possible for the boy to start it up again, just as in the novel Hello America where the young hero does precisely the same — except he attempts to do it on a continental level.
J.G. Ballard, ‘Against Entropy’, a 1984 interview with Peter Ronnov-Jessen.
ABOVE: ‘Precis’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A flipped Mitsubishi Precis, run over by a tank, in the abandoned base housing at George AFB near Victorville, CA. There were several smashed cars left in strategic lines of sight used for infantry cover during wargames exercises. The engine block in this thing was crushed like an egg. Shot March 2001, 160T film. Night, about 8 minutes, full moon, but overcast, yellow and purple-gelled strobe-flash.’
HENRY: Do you think your photos suggest a cryptic ‘signs of passing’ of American Culture from the world stage?
TROY: I suppose it can’t help but be interpreted that way‚ but I must also say the rest of the world has more ruins and debris left behind than America does. The internet is overflowing with amazing photography shot in the abandoned places of the 21st century. Spend an hour Googling ‘urban exploration’ and you’ll see that the culture is exploding worldwide, so whilst you got the concept right, it’s important to see it as a human, post-industrial thing rather than purely American.
UrbEx is as old as mankind. Humans have always been obsessed with both building and exploration. I’m sure primitive man explored the abandoned caves of his ancestors too. We’re drawn to ruins. It’s just how we’re wired as a species. Whereas the 20th century saw an unprecedented worldwide explosion of construction, by the dawn of the 21st century much of this expansion had failed or become obsolete, leaving the world littered with an amazing array of every type of ruins imaginable. Today we are experiencing a true golden age of abandonment.
SIMON: You describe it as a ‘culture’. That suggests it’s more than simply the illicit thrill of sneaking into abandoned or forbidden territory.
TROY: Yes. UrbEx, or Urban Exploration, is the pastime of visiting TOADS (temporary, obsolete, abandoned and derelict spaces), but not for scientific, anthropological or nefarious purposes. It’s about absorbing the atmosphere and wabi sabi soul of these places. A ‘finding beauty in decay’ aesthetic. I visit these lapsed spaces for several of the same reasons that normal people visit a serene mountain glen: the soul-cleansing quietude and the sense of feeling very small in a big universe. But ultimately it is an entirely different sensibility. Where most people see waste and blight in TOADS, Urban Explorers see elegant devolution and the weight of time.
Found the man Traven. A strange derelict figure, hiding in a bunker in the deserted interior of the island. He is suffering from severe exposure and malnutrition, but is unaware of this or, for that matter, of any other events in the world around him … He maintains that he came to the island to carry out some scientific project — unstated — but I suspect that he understands his real motives and the unique role of the island … In some way its landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths. The attractions and dangers of such an architecture, as the past has shown, need no stressing …
J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964).
HENRY: Ballard has a strangely acute, Triassic sense of ‘deep time’ in his fiction‚ especially in short stories like ‘The Terminal Beach’. Similarly, in your book Lost America, you wrote, ‘The stars pinwheeling overhead and clouds smearing across the sky mirrored the compression of time created by the relentless pace of the trip.’ You said you were seeking to ‘heighten the unreality’ of these bizarre, spectral non-places.
TROY: It is a different reality. UrbEx night photography is very far removed from normal life, and my goal is to accentuate this surreal, otherworldly atmosphere in the work. One of the big attractions of night photography is this weird time-space distortion thing. Most of the night shooters I know are philosophical about the process. The exposures are minutes long, giving you time to sit in the dark and absorb the scene. Regardless of whether you are shooting cranes in an abandoned shipyard, or you’re on the top of a windswept mountain shooting thousand year old trees, it’s a wonderfully zen, contemplative experience.
ABOVE: ‘Hot Seat 2’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Shot at the abandoned Fort Ord Army Base in Monterey, CA. I recently learned that most (soon to be all) of the barracks and entire laundry have recently been bulldozed. Hundreds of buildings. Gone. Night, full moon, pink and green-gelled strobe-flash, 3-4 minute exposure.’
HENRY: You must get scared sometimes.
TROY: I don’t really worry about stuff very much. I have yet to see a ghost or the undead, although I’ve had thousands of weird experiences. I’ve shot in many supposedly haunted locations and seen and heard things that some people would pass off as paranormal, but nothing that couldn’t be attributed to wind, settling or vermin in the walls. What I have seen a lot of are big poisonous spiders, three-storey drop offs into the yawning darkness with no railings, copper thieves, rattlesnakes, rotten floors and wasted teenage vandals. I’ve come out of buildings crawling with spiders (I’ve had some very bad spider bites over the years), missed a rattlesnake bite by inches and been chased back to the car by a pack of wild dogs. I’ve been run off by crazy, desert-rat property owners racking shotguns. I’ve been swarmed by a heavily armed platoon of border agents in southern Arizona while I was shooting in a pet cemetery. I’ve had countless cuts and bruises and sprained and twisted ankles, and I once gave myself an excruciating second-degree burn while light painting with fireworks in a sandstorm.
Doing this is a whole lot of fun, but there are a lot of very real ways to get hurt or killed. The dangerous aspect of UrbEx night photography is just not something I dwell on. If I did I’d never leave the house.
SIMON: In Lost America you wrote about coming across a sacrificial altar used in an occult ceremony.
TROY: Yeah, that was nasty. They had sacrificed a sheep on a makeshift altar in an abandoned Air Force fire station in a remote corner of the Mojave desert. Blood and entrails were smeared everywhere, lots of evil graffiti about how much fun it is to kill. It was a miserable sight. Sad.
SIMON: You said it was part of the ‘growing evidence of downright creepy stuff’ you’ve encountered. Are you implying that this kind of activity is on the rise?
TROY: Is it on the rise, or has it always been there, bubbling away under the surface? I don’t have the answer for that. Remember what I said earlier about the desert being the last place where oddballs can thrive? Some people are just bigger oddballs than others, what can I tell you?
HENRY: I enjoy reading your interior highway dialogues [Troy wrote 12,000 words to accompany the photos in Lost America]. You should definitely do more existential travel essays – you seem to have a feel for it.
TROY: Thanks, but I clearly don’t have as much to offer as a writer that I do as a photographer. Urban Exploration needs a new young writer, this generation’s version of Lester Bangs or Hunter S. Thompson, who can bring it into a modern pop-culture context. I’m not that writer, but I’ll gladly play the photographic role of Ralph Steadman.
ABOVE: ‘Danger Zone’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Building 4900, abandoned. Decommissioned Fort Ord Army Base. It’s all in the details. Shot 1/07, night- totally dark space, red-gelled strobe and ungelled strobe through fenced room.’
SIMON: Do you know about the recent hysteria in Britain, with people being questioned and harassed by police for using a camera in public places under suspicion of terrorism? There has been a huge backlash from ordinary people demanding the right to take pictures in public without being branded a terrorist.
TROY: I’ve heard rumblings about that sort of thing here too, especially in big cities. No question, the climate for photographers has changed since 9/11. The police have all of us on a shorter leash. Here in western America everything is spread out though, so it’s much easier to fall between the cracks if you get out of the big cities. That’s why I like shooting in rural locations. You are a lot less likely to be hassled by the police or unsavoury characters.
HENRY: Ballard has described Shanghai as ‘cruel and lurid, polluted and exciting’. Except for ‘cruel’ this seems an apt description of your photography (I find your work too surreal to be genuinely malicious). Do you feel this same kind of frantic, otherworldly rush as you travel the land in search of… of what, exactly?
TROY: Ghosts. Not Hollywood movie ghosts-actors under sheets waving their arms, but the ghosts of technology, a slice of amazing human history that is already being forgotten as we rush headlong towards… whatever the hell it is we are rushing towards. I don’t believe in ghosts in the traditional sense, but these places carry a spiritual weight that is unlike occupied places or nature. The stillness and atmosphere, especially alone at night, can be an emotionally overwhelming experience. No question, it is a rush.
ABOVE: ‘Canted’ by Troy Paiva. ‘1959 Buick at a nameless high desert junkyard near Lake Los Angeles, CA. Night, 2 minute exposure, full moon purple and green-gelled strobe-flash. Big and rusty.’
SIMON: Is America really changing as rapidly as your work suggests?
TROY: Yes, it’s changing faster and faster. America is all about speed and ‘the new’ so we’re always replacing things that don’t really need replacing. It’s interesting how the places and objects I find have changed over the years. Twenty years ago it was all about the debris left behind by the finned atomic-age, but now the focus has shifted to the debris of the 70s and 80s: junkyard minivans and wide-body airliners are replacing the big-finned station wagons and 707s. Disposable plastic replacing chromed steel.
Who knows where it’s headed? Surely we’re into another period of contraction in the West as gas tops $4 a gallon, which only means junkyards filled with giant SUVs and more abandonments to explore, but I have no idea where it will ultimately end up.
When Los Angeles is forgotten, probably what will remain will be the huge freeway system. I’m certain the people in the future — long after the automobile has been forgotten — will regard them as enigmatic and mysterious monuments which attested to the high aesthetic standards of the people that built them. In the same way that we look back on the pyramids or the mausoleums in a huge Egyptian necropolis as things of great beauty — we’ve forgotten their original function. It’s all a matter of aesthetics. I think that highways for the most part are beautiful. I prefer concrete to meadow.
J.G. Ballard, ‘How to Face Doomsday without Really Dying’, a 1974 interview with Carol Orr.
SIMON: How did you get interested in night photography?
TROY: In 1989 I was working as a designer/illustrator for a major toy company, drawing and painting every day in a heavily art-directed environment. After several years of that I lost any sense of the artistic fulfilment I was originally getting from the job. The last thing I wanted to do was draw and paint at home too, so I was desperate to find a new personal creative outlet. At the time my brother Tom was a full time photography student at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. One of his classes was in night photography. Being my brother, he knew I’d be fascinated by night shooting on a conceptual level, so he snuck me along to some lectures and shoots with the class in the decaying industrial sections of SF. It instantly dawned on me that this was the perfect way to photograph the abandoned roadside towns I was already exploring. After one trip to the desert to shoot at night I became totally obsessed and consumed by it.
ABOVE: ‘Alameda Corridor’ by Tom Paiva.
SIMON: Do you see any similarities with your brother Tom’s work?
TROY: When we were both learning the ropes in night shooting we frequently shot at night together. Now Tom lives in Los Angeles and he has a commercial photography business shooting large format architectural and industrial work. Living 500 miles apart, we seldom get the chance to shoot together anymore. Tom’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of mine; he doesn’t light paint, he doesn’t do the UrbEx-style locations, and his complex and meticulous – and ultimately gorgeous – large-format work is the exact opposite of my quick and dirty, guerrilla-style shooting. My compositional style tends towards a pop-surrealist, melodramatic and cartoony look, whereas his is a more stately and formalist style. His work is cool and elegant, mine hot and visceral. Yes, we’re both night photographers, but our styles couldn’t be more different. We’re very careful to avoid doing similar work specifically because we are both named ‘T. Paiva’ and we both make a conscious effort to avoid stepping on each other’s artistic toes. One way we’re similar though is that we’re both loners, but I think that is a trait that runs strong in most night shooters. It’s funny to watch a group of night photographers descend on a location – they usually say something like ‘meet you here at 1am’ and head off in opposite directions.
SIMON: Who else can you recommend in the field?
TROY: Jan Staller, Richard Misrach, Michael Kenna and Steve Fitch for sure. Studying the lighting work of O. Winston Link, William Lesch and Chip Simons back in the late 80s was really important for me, too. I’d sit there for hours, deconstructing their images trying to figure out how they lit their subjects. But maybe I owe more to David Lynch, Roger Deakins, Vittorio Storaro, Juan Ruiz Anchía, Emmanuel Lubezki, Tim Burton and a trillion other movie artists. I watch a lot more movies than I read photo books.
SIMON: What kind of equipment do you use?
TROY: I shot on film from 1989 to 2004 using cheap, outdated flea-market 35mm gear. It felt right for me to be shooting this forgotten junk with junk. This old work has a Holga-esque, toy-camera lo-fi quality that many find endearing today. I guess I was unintentionally ahead of the curve there too. I stopped shooting for a year in 2004 as the film era fizzled out, frustrated by lab closures, the lack of quality film processing and the low yield of acceptable work with my ancient equipment. In 2005 I moved to digital once I saw that camera technology had advanced enough to allow me to do noise-free time exposures. I now shoot with a Canon 20D and a 12-24mm Tokina zoom lens. I use a heavy, solid Slik tripod because I do a lot of work in wind and rough conditions and I need as stable a platform for the camera as possible. Regrettably, I was forced away from the ‘shooting junk with junk’ ethos by changing technology, but with the 20D already being superseded by several newer models in the past few years, maybe the 20D is already ‘outdated junk’ gear too.
ABOVE: ‘Speedlines’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Mid ’70s Chevy Monte Carlo at the Pearsonville, California Junkyard. This is the last of the Pearsonville work, I wanna try to head back soon tho. Night, 2 minute exposure, full moon, blue and green-gelled flashlight.’
SIMON: You’ve described your technique as ‘low cost/high impact lighting’. Is it therefore accessible for amateurs and people beginning to experiment with photography?
TROY: Absolutely. The advent of digital photography and the ability to chimp the shot on the back of your camera as you work has revolutionized night photography and light painting. In the film era you could shoot a whole roll of film and not know that the leader on the film never got picked up by the sprocket, let alone that your exposures were incorrect or your lighting was not bright enough.
All my lighting is done with a single 20 year old Vivitar 285 strobe flash and a collection of flashlights from a tiny keychain LED to a 1,000,000 candlepower spotlight. I have a set of theatrical lighting gels cut to small swatches that I just hold over the light source. Because the exposures are minutes long, I have plenty of time to do multiple flash pops and take my time with my flashlight work. Observers are often surprised by my low-tech lighting technique, asking ‘Is that really all there is to it?’ I have to keep it simple because this is frequently a guerrilla-style of photography. Travelling light is critical, so all my gear except the tripod fits in a small daypack, allowing me to get in, set up, shoot and get out quickly.
You can buy a flash like mine second-hand for $50. All of my flashlights could be bought at any drugstore like Target or Walmart. Every halfway-large city has at least one theatrical supply store where you can buy gel material. It costs about $10 a sheet. The reason for not trying light painting is not because of cost! Look at any of the myriad night photography or light-painting groups at a photo-sharing site like flickr and prepare to be overwhelmed with amateurs doing this kind of work in all sorts of locations. It’s everywhere now. I seem to have created a Frankenstein.
SIMON: Do you work fast?
TROY: I work incredibly fast compared to other night shooters. A lot of that is a product of having almost 20 years of experience, but I am a seat-of-the-pants type of artist in any media. The less thinking and planning and fussing over the piece, the more relaxed and natural it will be.
It’s kind of like a pianist playing a song with thousands of notes without sheet music: if they think about every note, they can’t possibly play the song. Rather, they turn off the conscious part of their mind and just let it flow. Same for painters and other artists. It’s no different for photography. The more you think, plan and try to get the shot, the more likely it will elude you.
ABOVE: ‘Las Vegas Club’ by Troy Paiva. ‘The YESCO sign boneyard, Las Vegas, NV. Shot May, 2000. Night, 160 Tungsten film, full moon, sodium and mercury vapor lights, red-gelled strobe flash. That’s the Luxor hotel spotlight. Legendary location seen in many TV shows and movies containing hundreds of old signs. Almost everything here was donated and moved to the Las Vegas Neon Museum across town shortly after I shot here, this lot was turned into more manufacturing/warehouse space.’
Had they any idea that Las Vegas was defended by a rag-tag army of children? In an attempt to blind their camera lenses, Manson continued to turn up the electric power flowing into the city. The neon façades of the casinos and hotels were now so many cataracts of white lava, walls of incandescent pink and purple that seemed to set alight the surrounding jungle, turning the Strip and the downtown casino centre into an inflamed, shadowless realm through which the occasional armoured car would appear like a spectral dragon on the floor of a furnace.
J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981).
SIMON: Funnily enough, given that your signature style is this unnaturally vivid primary-colour palette, I always picture purples and reds when I think of Vermilion Sands, more so Ballard’s Hello America. The gels you use irradiate your scenery – for me it really does evoke the near-future sheen of Hello America‘s abandoned United States, in which whole cities are buried in the desert, a vast continent paved over with accreted hyperconsumerism. But in photography at least, this seems an unusual approach to take with urban ruins – many would rather focus on the grey, rusting aspects of abandoned towns. Perhaps, like Ballard, you are breathing new life into these ruins, recombining them in new and unexpected ways.
TROY: Yes, you nailed it. Most UrbEx photography is a pure documentation of locations weathered to dreary and monochromatic greys and browns, but I’m taking it someplace else entirely by reanimating these places with light. Some say I’m bringing a festive, circus-like atmosphere to these dead places. It’s done in a sort of Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ spirit. My colour choices are usually predicated on the actual colour of the subject and location, not because of some premeditated ‘I must use green tonight’ mentality.
I see it as embracing the idea of death rather than fearing it. It’s about accepting it and having fun with this darker side of the human condition. My work tends to inspire melancholia, especially in older people, because they remember these places from their youth. It reminds them of their own mortality, but I think that palpable sense of transience and loss in these places is actually exciting and inspiring rather than sad or futile. I suspect that feeling runs strong in many urban explorers.
Personally, I’m not that opposed to pollution – I think the transformation of the old landscape by concrete fields and all that isn’t necessarily bad by definition. I feel there’s a certain beauty in looking at a lake that has a bright metallic scum floating on top of it. A certain geometric beauty in a cone of china clay, say, four hundred yards high, suddenly placed in the middle of the rural landscape. It’s all a matter of a certain aesthetic response. Some people find highways, cloverleaf junctions and overpasses and multi-storey car-parks ugly, chiefly because they are made of concrete. But they are not. Most of them are structures of great beauty.
J.G. Ballard, ‘How to Face Doomsday without Really Dying’, a 1974 interview with Carol Orr.
HENRY: Ballard has said that his fiction is the ‘dissection of a deep pathology’. Do you also see your own work as a kind of surgical procedure, laying bare the arid and often post-apocalyptically tinged dreamscapes of the USA in all its mythical glory? Or is it more intimate, personal and emotional than that?
TROY: Jeez, these are hard questions. It is a very personal and emotional process for me. It is an artistic process more than an intellectual one. My photography is about these places as they are now, not as they were. It’s not socioeconomic commentary, an anti-technology or anti-military-waste rant, or a warning about rampant consumerism and conspicuous consumption, though it has been interpreted as such by others. Put simply, I love these places. I am laying bare this rotten underbelly, but I’m doing it because these places simply move me, not necessarily because of what they were, but because of what they are now. It’s all about the atmosphere and feeling, and I try to enhance this surreal vibe with my time exposures and light painting.
ABOVE: The cover of Paiva’s Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, published by Chronicle Books.
SIMON: I see that Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG has written the foreword to your forthcoming book, Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration. As we’ve previously seen, Geoff shares a Ballardian approach to architecture and urban exploration.
TROY: My editor at Chronicle Books introduced me to Geoff. He was a last-second addition to the project when my original essayist fell through at the 11th hour. Geoff immediately ‘got it’ and wrote a very eloquent and flattering forward, quoting from The Atrocity Exhibition among several other books. I enjoy Geoff’s blog tremendously, especially when the subject of ‘the philosophy and aesthetics of abandonment’ comes up.
Paiva’s images of airplane graveyards, in particular, are all the more evocative and gripping when you consider that his father was a flight engineer, hopping planes from country to country. In his book The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard describes a surreal landscape of crashed bombers, abandoned air warfare ranges, and disused runways. He refers to such images as ‘the nightmare of a grounded pilot,’ or ‘the suburbs of Hell,’ a ‘University of Death,’ across which people wander, stunned by the ruins all around them.
Geoff Manaugh, foreword to Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration.
SIMON: Tell us more about the book.
TROY: It’s broken down into five chapters: ‘Byron Hot Springs Hotel’, about an abandoned early 20th century resort; ‘16th Street Station’, about a derelict Beaux Arts inner city train station; ‘Decommissioned’, which covers over a dozen various abandoned military and industrial complexes; ‘Desert’, about the abandoned roadsides of the desert southwest; and ‘Boneyard’, a high-desert graveyard comprised of hundreds of junk aircraft.
While it’s as similar to Lost America as you’d expect two volumes of ‘light-painted night photography in abandoned places’ to be, this new one is about specific locations rather than general overviews of types of places. I have the first production copy sitting on the desk in front of me and it really looks sharp. It’s a much higher-quality piece than Lost America. The layout and design is much more sophisticated and refined and the print quality is a vast improvement. I’m frankly floored by it and I’m my own worst critic, so I’m pretty optimistic that other people are going to be floored by it too.
SIMON: What sort of research do you do, in terms of finding out sites to visit and photograph?
TROY: I drive around in the desert and scout locations. I have a collection of old road maps from the 50s, which I’ve studied at length. It’s fascinating to see whole towns on those maps that no longer exist. In the last few years I’ve had a lot of email from people telling me about great locations and I’ve been acting on some of these tips with great results. I’ve also been shooting with a lot of local UrbEx photographers who have introduced me to some spectacular spots very close to home.
ABOVE: ‘Wind Slice’ by Troy Paiva. ‘1930s airliner in storage at Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, CA, a Mojave Desert aircraft boneyard that services the film industry as well as recycles aircraft parts. Night, full moon, red-gelled flash. 2-3 minutes.’
He welcomed this journey into a familiar land, zones of twilight. At dawn, after driving all night, they reached the suburbs of Hell. The pale flares from the petrochemical plants illuminated the wet cobbles. No one would meet them there. His two companions, the bomber pilot at the wheel in the faded flying suit and the beautiful young woman with radiation burns, never spoke to him… Who were they, these strange twins – couriers from his own unconscious? For hours they drove through the endless suburbs of the city. The billboards multiplied around them…
J.G. Ballard, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1970).
SIMON: And your favourite shoot so far?
TROY: The aircraft boneyards are still my favourites. I’m an airline brat so I grew up around planes. There is nothing that can prepare you for walking up to half of a 747 laying on its belly in the sand. It’s just epic. I shot the derelict ocean liner ‘S.S. Independence’ earlier this year, days before it left to be towed to the breaker beaches of Asia. That was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime shoot.
SIMON: Do you have a desire to shoot outside of America?
TROY: Oh sure: the abandoned industrial cities of Eastern Russia, Gunkanjima – that completely abandoned island city in Japan – the half-finished hotels of the Sinai, the abandoned Formula 1 racetrack at Reims, France… the list goes on and on. Realistically, though, there is more than enough in the American Southwest to shoot for a lifetime.
It’s mainly a money issue. Being a freelance artist in the 21st century is a low-budget lifestyle. Still, with a few deep-pocket patrons I’d be happily winging my way across the globe next week!
ABOVE: ‘Clipped and Headless’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A mutilated Delta 727 fuselage on its belly at Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, CA, a Mojave Desert aircraft boneyard that services the film industry as well as recycles aircraft parts. Night, full moon, red-gelled strobe flash. 2-3 minute exposure.’
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