I’m not afraid of heights but I’m not exactly thrilled when falling from them. In the same way, death in itself doesn’t worry me- we all have to do it (like that tax return I’ve been putting off). What does frighten me is the idea of dying without fulfilling my own dreams or inspiring other peoples- being forgotten as the world moves on. Still, my goal is not to live forever but to create something that will*. It’s why, when Rebecca Litchfield emailed me and asked if I’d be part of her ‘Underworld’ project (“…and by the way, are you scared of heights?”) I looked a bit like this:
Rebecca is one of the world’s best known ‘adventure photographers’. She climbs high and jagged fences, lowers herself into deep dark crypts and photographs the forgotten corners of the world few people remember exist- except for security guards, most of whom are adamant they should remain that way! Her book “Soviet Ghosts” documents her travels through the secret places of the former Soviet Union. It went viral and is truly awe-inspiring. Did I mention she’s also a truly lovely and fascinating person? That helps when you’re taking a model on an ‘urbex’ shoot…
Urban exploration photography is getting a lot of attention on sites like Buzzfeed, but they don’t show the phenomenal effort the photographers put in just in order to get inside the locations. Camping in nearby ditches, being arrested and falling through floors are pretty standard! (Hence needing to be a patient and kind person- some models need a little coaxing over fences)! I once accompanied Magpie Photography (another well-known urbex photographer) on a trip around a disused asylum and found it incredibly inspiring as a writer though utterly terrifying, so I expected to be scared to death again (and where more convenient to be scared to death than in a crypt?) :P
I arrived in the morning for a dress fitting (designs by Joanne Fleming), and hair and make-up by Rosie Lee. I’m not sure what brought that cheesy grin out of me but as we’re all crazy pet ladies, it was probably a cat story.
After a traffic-related spanner in the works and a quest for food, we waited by the cemetery for things to quiet down. No such luck- a few nosey neighbours and a vote later, I watched the spiky fence get smaller as we drove back home, still knowing I’d have to climb it more than once that night. A quick stretch, a fuss of the cat and we piled back in the car for the final we’ll-do-this-no-matter-WHAT attempt.
Outdoor nudes require military precision- I’m used to “wait…waaaaaiiiit… GOGOGO!” I haven’t climbed a swingy rope ladder up a high fence, thrown and passed equipment over, dashed across a cemetery and hidden under another building under those circumstances. After we all made it safely, I watched as Rebecca pulled the grate aside and lowered the rope ladder again- this time into the abyss. Adrenaline shaking my hands and feet, I’d have fallen flat if it hadn’t been for the guidance of Rebecca and shoot assistant Danny, who climbed into the darkness first to check the undead hordes weren’t forming an orderly queue for our blood. They weren’t, so off we went through the underworld lit only by our little torches.
Behind the scenes- I’m being sewn into a dress. ;)
While Rebecca set up, I lay out the dresses and went exploring. I’d hoped to find bats but if they were there, they were hibernating somewhere secret.
The asylum had been covered with graffiti. Ivy had begun to reclaim it- like long tentacles dragging the stones back down into the earth. There were parts that clearly hadn’t been touched for decades but others looked more condom-y and needle-y. Every creak and small noise I thought could be a crazed person coming to ‘get’ us.
The crypt could be the stillest place I have ever visited. The air, silent. The quiet conversation, muffled by the thick walls as I moved further away. No breeze, no creaking- and no fear. Even surrounded by coffins, there was an atmosphere of peace. No matter how violently occupants may have died, here they shared the same quiet and beauty in their chambers of rust, leather and stone. This is where I began to understand the appeal of “Dark Tourism”- Rebecca’s current project. (The allure places associated with death hold for some).
My first dress weighed a ton and due to a zip malfunction earlier in the day, Danny sewed me in. The weight helped keep me warm and the train made the quietest whisper being pulled along the ground. Rebecca shoots the same picture at different shutter speeds to ensue every detail is there for her later on and so I spent a few minutes being very very still.
Her temple had stood for time unknown and men came in their droves. On foot at first, then later on horseback. In pretentious ceremonial cars and, once, a motorbike. The romantics still brought their horses to rein outside. They saw castles more often than not. Some men saw paradise. Some, a dark prison-like crypt and the damsel within. She endured their silly visions and remained motionless, keeping the smile from her lips.
Sometimes, she wondered what they saw when they looked at her. Mirrors were forbidden- it was the law of her kind. Not that it mattered to her whether she appeared in the guise of an angel, a goddess or a naked succubus. All that mattered was that they took
We had already dubbed the second dress “the contortion dress” due to the amount of arm bending I did to get in. Halfway through, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get it on but when we finally got it to my feet, it looked like a golden second skin and I remembered a legend about a Greek god who transformed himself into a shower of gold in order to get through the keyhole of his love interest’s rooms…
Posing with coffins is always a bone of contention among some people. (Pun absolutely intended.) ;) I think the difference is, firstly in respect. Writhing half naked on a recent burial plot is, in my opinion, bad taste. The deceased probably has living relatives who may not be ready to see the reminder of their loss turned into art- however, the people here do not have relatives that can reminisce on their living pasts. I do know that the occupants of the coffins here had a very different concept of ‘urbex’! When I was in Ireland, I visited Newgrange (a neolithic monument) and inside was the graffiti of Victorian explorers!! I like to think that our version is a little more respectful to our surroundings. As they say: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
“I wish you could just understand…”
Alexandra’s parents had died young. The Reverend John Bott had perished in the fire while trying to save his pregnant wife Caroline. The chemist, occasional surgeon and women’s suffrage member was remembered only as “a darling and faithful wife”. That must have stung.
Alexandra had grown up with an almost instinctive desire to make them proud and yet the divide had grown slowly over time- a remoteness she traced back to the moment she was asked the question asked of all children:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Alive!” she had said to her horrified parents.
It was jarring the first time she learned that the dead could die again, but life under any name had an organised craziness and Jane had got used to it. She had lived, she had died, she had awoken in another world that could not be called Heaven, Hell, Harrods or any of the other H’s, and she had died in that other world. And so on and so forth. Awaking yet again and seeing what lay next to her awoke questions that ate questions, like the legendary serpent forever devouring its tail. Each coffin had her name, age and date of death embossed in the leather.
“Jane Rose. Died aged 87, 1893. Ne’er did a living thing harm.”
“… Suddenly taken from us aged 12, 1905.”
“… Left her pain behind aged 74, 1979″“… Died aged 23, 2002, “Life seemed more sweet that thou didst live”
Wasn’t there supposed to be a blissful escape in madness? She tried and failed to summon a mad thought. Death, then, had a sense of irony- for up until now, she had always died laughing…
By the time we got the third dress on, it was after midnight. I thought of a darker Cinderella story: a tale in which she must get back above ground after dancing all night with the ghosts of her past. The Danse Macabre.
Dawn did not break this time but crashed overhead. A wave of light and birdsong she would not be there to hear this time. She had lingered too long after the last bows and curtseys and wondered now if she regretted it. This most secret dance took place but once a month and yet she had begun to enjoy the presence of the dancers below more than those above, but this was no place for the living. She had outstayed her welcome. Were they asleep, or were eyes averting, politely giving the last living guest time to leave? She slipped off her shoe and the uneven gait shook the fine earth from her hem. Dust to dust…
We packed in almost silence. Tired, cold and yet exhilarated, we prepared to haul our equipment up the rope ladder again. We turned the lights out, leaving the crypt cold and dark once more. The night was almost as still as the underground and the sound of the traffic seemed unblockable, until the scraping of the grate brought me back to reality. Mid-scurry back across the cemetery, something stirred in the night…
Note to me: Never hiss “fox, fox, FOX!!” at two shaky adrenaline-filled people halfway up a rope ladder no matter how close the lovely creatures are and how excited about it you are. It sounds like “cops, cops, COPS!!” :P
I didn’t think I’d manage to pull my weight over the fence for the final time but, numb and barefoot (my boots didn’t fit the rungs), I did at last with the encouragement of team awesome. An emergency chocolate and cider stop later and we were home. Shortly after that and I was all-of-a-snuggle in bed.
I asked Rebecca if I could write the beginnings of a few stories to accompany the pictures- stories that I’d leave and finish one day. She very nicely said I could, so the italics under the pictures are my own scribblings.
If you’d like to hear her version of the night, read her blog HERE.
Sleep well, everyone- it’s nearly 5am here!
p.s. look, I found a stake!