Keeping our heritage in the spotlight
It can be easy to overlook our industrial past. Matt Emmett has discovered a powerful, strange beauty in abandoned buildings, as he explains to Elestr Lee.
New year, new beginnings – if you have lived for some while in the same area, it may be a time to notice changes taking place. Not just due to nature’s seasons – but also in the built environment around us. As technology and social needs change, buildings that were once vital have become redundant, frequently abandoned. Industrial buildings that were once part of our infrastructure can simply fade from our attention. But every building has a story to tell – and local photographer Matt Emmett is winning accolades for his work in drawing attention to this feature of our local, national and even international heritage.
Matt’s latest success is as overall winner of Visual Art Open’s 2021 competition, for his photograph Indoor Rainbow, which he took inside Reading Jail. “There are categories for drawing, painting, sculpture as well as photography. Usually in these types of competition photographers don’t win – so I wasn’t expecting this!” says Matt of the award, announced towards the end of 2021.
Revealing the unexpected – often quite ‘otherworldly’ – beauty of former industrial buildings has become a passion for Matt. He became interested in photography as a 19-year-old, when his father gave him a Pentax for his birthday, and which he used on an 8-month trip around south-east Asia. “It’s the best way to learn, by doing,” he comments.
In 2009 he moved on to a digital camera, and a couple of years later a friend asked him for advice. They took photos in a garden, but then his friend asked for another lesson, this time with a stronger subject to photograph. He persuaded Matt to join him at an abandoned jet engine testing site near Fleet, Hampshire. “We found where they used to test jet engines underground. It was really alien – like walking into a dream land!” remembers Matt. His imagination was fired – and since that first discovery, he has since photographed 240 sites in Britain and Europe.
During the past year he has been recording the dismantling of the gas holder in Newtown – which for more than a century has been a feature of the Caversham skyline. “They have just drained, and cut open the huge tank at the bottom of the holder – the water used to be a counter-balance to the gas,” he explains. “We were able to go inside – the first people to do so since it was built more than a hundred years ago.”
Matt, who has lived nearly all his life in Caversham, trained as a graphic designer and is now senior graphic designer with Spin Master Toys. He manages to combine the ‘day job’ with his passion for photography, and as well as visiting industrial sites in the UK and abroad has been offered assignments by Heritage Lottery. “These were restoration and regeneration projects, which involved me visiting the sites four times during the year, to record the ongoing restoration work. I would go there for six hours – three hours to photograph, with the remaining three working with local people, teaching them photography skills. The idea was they would then continue to take photographs when I wasn’t there.
“I found this so rewarding. Obviously, some people don’t get very far with photography. But in one case, someone I worked with then went on – and is now a working photographer!”
Matt’s two children aren’t yet showing signs of following in his footsteps, though they do enjoy accompanying dad on assignments – which have included descending into underground tunnels at Box in Wiltshire, and visiting Europe’s largest vehicle scrapyard in Sweden. Plans for 2022 include more involvement in Stack Rock, a Napoleonic sea fort near to Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire. Completed as a fort in 1859, it was disarmed in 1929 and has lain abandoned since. Last year it was purchased and visitors can be taken by boat. Matt has found it a fascinating subject to record. “I was invited to photograph it, and I asked if I could revisit it – I knew I could bring a boat full of other interested people from Reading,” he recalls. “So for this visit, I asked if we could come at night – and this time, I could take some very different photographs.”
With plans to set up workshops in which he can pass on his photography skills, it seems Matt is all set for a busy 2022.