“I was always an explorer before being a photographer,” says Scott McCarten, the brain behind Autopsy of Adelaide, an ongoing photography project documenting Adelaide’s abandoned spaces.
“If there was a door ajar or a gate just open, I needed to see what was beyond the threshold.” McCarten’s work takes the viewer far beyond this threshold, and occasionally, through time.
His shots, arranged in diary entries on the Autopsy of Adelaide blog as well as Facebook and Instagram, show the decay, frozen furniture and recently abandoned artefacts found in empty buildings and urban spaces across the city and state. Now McCarten is both an explorer and avid photographer of these spaces.
“I think it’s history – it speaks to our identity,” he says. “I want to know who lived in that place, who worked there. What did they do?”
In one set of photos, McCarten visits an old telephone exchange, where defunct machinery, control panels and caution signs sit as a totem to an earlier time.
Then, in a more recent set, McCarten ventures through the surreal dreamscape of Fairyland. The decaying park that once inspired so much joy in visiting children now feels like something from a horror film, with time bleached dolls and mannequins staring vacantly into space.
In another set of photos, McCarten details the interior of a long abandoned house in the Adelaide Hills. One photo shows an unkempt bedroom, bed half-made with an Akubra just below the pillow, dresses hanging on the wardrobe and an alarm clock stuck at a quarter past two.
“That place was like walking into a time capsule,” McCarten says, “You walk in and there’s calendars from the 1980s, a 30 year old Christmas tree – It’s an incredible place.”
“I’m interested in the fleeting nature of things and the rapid rate of change in our society now.”
Many of McCarten’s photos possess the shivery nostalgia present in that house. They convey an ethereal sense of lost time and memory. His photography is aided by his own improvised lighting rigs. Many urban explorer photographers will simply shoot these scenes as they find them, but McCarten adds an element of stagecraft, casting shadows and sometimes illuminates parts of the image with colored gels.
A global phenomenon, urban explorers are those who step beyond the threshold and seek out the forgotten, unnoticed or closed spaces in cities. Many will have seen accounts of adventures through the catacombs of Paris, the Roman sewers of London or overgrown and abandoned Chernobyl.
McCarten fits this label, but it is a much broader and varied community of explorers than one might expect. “A lot of us are loners,” he says, “I find it a very solo thing.”
In Adelaide’s urban explorer community McCarten says that there are many like him. They are photographers, artists and curious minds looking to step over the threshold. Others are far more destructive, who revel in the opportunity to destroy an unwatched space, or even loot it for goods and copper.
“There’s a lot of mistrust in the Urbex community,” McCarten says, “Everyone’s had their fingers burnt once or twice, so you learn to keep things to yourself.” All of McCarten’s adventures are above board, he assures The Adelaide Review. Or at least, not illegal, as urban exploration sits in a grey area of the law.
“I’m not going to break into a place,” he says “Most private owners are accommodating to my work anyway. I get in touch and I show them my work.”
To preserve the spaces visited, Autopsy of Adelaide’s diary entries are often written ambiguously with no concrete location mentioned. “I keep them cryptic to protect the spaces from damage, but also to stop people getting hurt,” McCarten says.
Some locations he’s photographed are just as they were five years ago when he first found them. Others that are discovered by the more destructive elements of urban exploration are ruined one week after he finds them, but these changes present their own opportunity to tell that space’s story in the odd half-life of abandonment and fleeting occupation.
As the Urbex community continues to grow and more light is shed on abandoned space, McCarten says he encounters a lot of people asking where they can find the places he shoots. “I don’t tell people where they are – if I tell you where it is, it’s no longer exploration. It’s tourism.”
Yet, they’re everywhere. Using Rundle Mall as an example, McCarten says people only need to look up. While the Mall is a bustling hub of shops and shoppers at street level, many upper floors are empty, dusty caverns of years gone by. “It’s not that hard,” he says. “‘Just look around you!,’ I tell them. Nobody ever held my hand.”
Images: Scott McCarten, Autopsy of Adelaide