By Alison Kilian
A water-stained ceiling and peeling wallpaper overlook a dirty bathtub in a former Soviet sanatorium. In another photo, a dirty surgical table sits against a backdrop of chipped blue tiles in an ancient-looking operating room. Others show crumbling factories and abandoned slaughterhouses.
Such grim scenes might sound like the set of a horror film but they actually are the subjects of a stunning series of photos depicting forgotten structures from former communist East Germany. In his "Verlorene Orte" ("Lost Places") photo series, Berlin-based photographer Axel Hansmann, 57, has managed to coax a morbid charm out of decaying architecture.
Many sites, like the Beelitz sanatorium in Brandenburg -- once the largest Soviet military hospital outside of the USSR -- are no longer open to the public. Others have been ruined by vandals or torn down, making Hansmann's photos one of the only ways left to experience them.
"Part of my project is to capture the beauty while it's still there," Hansmann told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "These dilapidated spaces can be quite beautiful and I try to capture that with my techniques."
Since 2007, Hansmann has been photographing places that might otherwise only be seen by squatters, graffiti artists and local teens in search of adventure. Ghost-town amusement parks, defunct breweries and long-abandoned power plants are among the sites he has visited. One interesting space can yield hundreds of photos in a single visit and require multiple excursions. Hansmann visited the Beelitz sanatorium -- his favorite subject -- a total of 13 times.
'It Hurts When These Spaces Are Torn Down'
Hansmann's photographic techniques capture the beauty of these spaces in a unique way, resulting in photos that look like they were made with paintbrush and canvas rather than camera and computer. He uses a technique called high dynamic range imaging (HDRI) that allows for greater contrast between light and dark and reveals elements of the structures. Once he has narrowed down his selection of shots, he will typically spend hours at the computer using sophisticated image-editing software to enhance the photographs.
Finding suitable subjects can prove difficult, he explains. Hansmann's connection to an insider network of people who call themselves "urban explorers" -- photographers intent on shooting spaces off-limits to the general public -- is helpful. Most explorers keep their finds secret, says Hansmann, so that the spaces won't be overrun and ruined by an enthusiastic public.
Hansmann is always on the lookout for new spaces to snap, although he says that good spots are getting harder and harder to find. Some are simply ruined by vandals, while others are targeted by developers and torn down.
His images of a defunct brewery in Leipzig were captured shortly before the entire structure was demolished, lending them an added poignancy. There is, he says, a twinge of emotion that comes with having one of his former subjects destroyed.
"It does hurt when these spaces are torn down, or when I see them vandalized, or used as little more than garbage bins," he says. "It's sad when something beautiful is ruined."
Axel Hansmann is currently showing his "Lost Places" photos at two locations in Berlin, the Besenwirtschaft restaurant and the Grimm Repro copy shop. He also has a self-published book coming out through German publisher McBuch Online.
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