Ancient ruins take on a ghostly, otherworldly look in the photographs of Arthur Drooker, who used infrared capture for the images in his just-published book, Lost Worlds: Ruins of the Americas. Here's what he has to say about his technique and travels:
How did you take up photographing ruins?
I began my journey in ruins photography in 2004 with a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Something about those old temples entwined in the jungle wouldn’t leave me alone—I had to go there. I was so taken with these ancient structures that I set out to find ruins and preserve them using infrared photography.
Which came first for you, the ruins or the infrared?
I started shooting infrared specifically to photograph ruins. I find the subject and the format perfectly suited to each other. Ruins are mysterious and otherworldly, and so is the infrared effect.
You worked with IR film before digital. How has digital changed things?
Digital has made shooting infrared much easier. There’s no red filter, no back-focusing, and no changing bags to deal with; this streamlines the whole process. Another advantage to shooting digital infrared is being able to see results instantly, which removes the guesswork and finger-crossing that always accompanied infrared film. However, some things don’t change—shooting digitally hasn’t changed how I evaluate a scene.
What gear do you use?
I currently use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, modified by LDP in New Jersey [www.maxmax.com] to make only infrared images. I use two Canon lenses: a 24–70mm f/2.8L and a 70–200mm f/4L. I like to travel light. I rarely, if ever, use a tripod; I shoot hand-held.
That’s quite a commitment, getting a 5D Mark II modified for IR only.
I first modified a 10D several years ago when I found you could convert digital cameras to take nothing but infrared. From there I moved up to a 5D Mark II. It is a commitment, but with the better technology and more megapixels available, I just had to step up. The better resolution also allowed me to make larger prints. With the 10D I would be reluctant to go any bigger than 16x20; with the 5D Mark II I can go to 30x40.
You note that the ruins need to be suitable for infrared rendition. What are your criteria?
They must be situated in nature to get the full effect. Leaves, grass, and overgrowth reflect infrared light, while bricks, stone and wood—the stuff of ruins—do not.
Part of a classic IR look depends on blue skies, puffy clouds, and sunlight on healthy green foliage. Did weather constrain your work?
Weather is certainly a factor. While shooting for Lost Worlds, I traveled to certain areas during their dry seasons to ensure that I’d have sunny days. I joke that when I’m shooting on location, I’m just as much a weatherman as I am a photographer. I constantly check forecasts. Sunny is definitely good. Sunny with some clouds is even better!
Another of your criteria is that the ruins have to be preserved as historic sites. What sort of sites wouldn’t you photograph?
Abandoned buildings, dilapidated barns, or things like the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Katrina. I don’t want to put any of that down; it’s just that at some point every photographer has to put parameters around what is potentially an infinite subject. I want to photograph places that people can to go to for historical significance and emotional resonance.
How do you work a scene?
By the time I arrive, I’ve already done advance research to familiarize myself with the site, and I have a pretty good idea about what to shoot and what to avoid. I typically spend about two to three days at a site to allow for changes in weather and, just as important, to get all the gee-whiz out of my system and see the ruin on a deeper level.
As soon as I arrive on location, I get my bearings and start looking for what to shoot and when. If the light is right, I’ll start immediately shooting. Other times, I’ll make a note to come back to a specific spot when I know the light will be better. I’m very surgical in my approach. Once I know what I’m going to shoot and when, I work it repeatedly with the intention of fine-tuning the image. This might mean waiting for a cloud to show up in a particular part of the frame, or waiting for a shadow to be just right, or waiting for the sun to dip a little lower to bring out more detail.