Art + Design

Night Vision: An Interview with Photographer Troy Paiva

Troy Paiva boldly goes where you’re not supposed to go. In Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, he glides through abandoned industrial complexes, military installations, junkyards, asylums, hotels, and gas stations, capturing stunning images of urban decay. Troy is one of the foremost photographers of the UrbEx (or UE) movement and his distinctive blend of atmospheric night photos and lighting effects are the visual hallmarks of a scene whose participants seek to investigate, to discover, and to soak up a forbidden atmosphere. I caught up with Troy last week to talk about his work.

How do you see yourself within the context of the UrbEx movement?

People have photographed ruins since the invention of the camera. People have taken pictures at night and done light painting almost as long. As near as I can figure though, I was the first person to combine all three. I’m amazed that so many people are doing UE night work now and it’s a thrill to be the guy that invented a whole genre of photography like that. But when all is said and done, I’m just another tourist wandering the ruins, taking it all in. UE is generally a secretive pastime. Most of us are loners and don’t talk much about what we do. Consequently, I think UE is bigger than any one person.

What draws you to exploring these abandoned spaces?

The epic solitude and the mystery. Alone, at night, these places take on an amazingly surreal atmosphere, totally unlike the “real world.”

Can you share any particularly vivid experiences you had during your explorations?

There’s nothing that can prepare a person for the sight of a headless and wingless airliner sitting on its belly in the sand, or a tract of hundreds of homes, abandoned on a decommissioned military base in the middle of nowhere. I love the moments like that: they are timeless explorations of just how small humans are in the grand scheme of things.

How did you first get into photography?

I am a career graphic designer and illustrator. Back in the late 80s I was painting and drawing for a major toy company as a full time job. The last thing I felt like doing when I got home was drawing and painting, so I was desperate to find a new creative outlet which was separate from my day job. I stumbled onto night photography and immediately connected it with the abandoned places I was already exploring. I hit the ground running and never looked back.

Do you have a favorite image from the book?

No, that’s like picking a favorite child! The airplane Boneyard is my favorite location, though, because it’s just so unique. So consequently it’s probably my favorite section of the book.

What would you like people to take away from Night Vision?

That we are living in a golden age of abandonment and urban exploration. There were more buildings and infrastructure built in the 20th century than in all the rest of human history combined. I want it to make others feel like getting their shoes dirty too and also, to give the “armchair explorer” a chance to experience these places.

Have more questions for Troy? Ask away! He’s volunteered to guest moderate the comments, so now’s your chance to find out everything you wanted to know about UrbEx, night photography, and headless airliners.

Guinevere Harrison

Guinevere de la Mare

Guinevere de la Mare is a writer, book lover, and the founder of Silent Book Club. She lives in San Francisco. She also was the senior community manager at Chronicle Books from 2009-2014.

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  • e August 25, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    ever been surprised by people in supposedly people free places?


  • Aliea August 25, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Do you have any suggestions for people who want to do some urban exploration?


  • Megan H August 25, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    By bringing UrbEx out of the dark with this book; are you worried that bringing attention to your art will inevitably affect the degree of solitude and loneliness that these photographs currently possess?


  • marct August 25, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    What sort of legal issues/troubles have you faced in your explorations???


  • Kristen R. August 25, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I’m a longtime fan of photography and am currently enrolled in the Regional & Urban Planning program at my local university. The notion of urban exploration is very intriguing and I enjoy seeing the fruits of people’s adventures. It was great to see some photos from the Salton Sea area on your website, as I was there earlier this year and it was quite surreal. There tends to be an eerie element to some of the abandoned locations you encounter – especially since your work primarily happens at night. Are you often left feeling kind of spooked or do you find these places to be strangely comforting?


  • Troy August 26, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Aliea: When you’re just starting out, err on the side of being too careful. Don’t go alone, don’t go at night. Start out by sticking to exteriors, and eventually work your way into interiors when you’re comfortable. You’re less likely to run into nefarious characters in isolated, rural locations than in urban spaces.

    e: Yes, many times. I’ve run across crazy desert rats ranting about alien abductions and mind implants, I’ve been run off by angry, shotgun-toting property owners, and talked my way out of being surrounded by a gang of wilding Clockwork Orange-style teenagers. There are a lot of homeless, copper-thieves and taggers out there too. In most urban locations, you are seldom truly alone.

    Megan: Not really. There are so many abandonments out there today that they can easily absorb what is still a small cult of people that are actually out doing UE. UE would have to become MUCH more popular before we have to worry about the “bloody tourists.”

    Marct: I’ve had countless encounters with police, sheriffs and security. When I was shooting a pet cemetery in an AZ border town I was swarmed by a platoon of Border Patrol agents who pounced on me simultaneously from 3 directions with air support circling overhead. In all those situations I have never been arrested or fined.

    OTOH, I’ve heard plenty of stories from other explorers who were not so lucky. I think the trick is to act like a professional and be cool when the cops shake you down. Don’t be carrying anything incriminating like tools which could be used for salvaging or B&E, spray paint, or weapons. If they tell you to leave, say
    ‘thank you” and do it. Don’t balk and whine. Always carry samples of your photography to prove that you actually ARE just taking pictures . . . at night . . . in the dark.

    Overall, I think I’ve been very lucky in not being fined, but you make your own luck.

    Kristen: Yes, the Salton Sea is a very strange place. There’s a whole chapter of my first book “Lost America” devoted to it.

    These places ARE spooky and creepy. The vibe is undeniable. Some people let it overwhelm them and eventually their imaginations run wild and they end up “seeing ghosts” and running out of the locations like their hair was on fire. Personally, I revel in the thrill of it and work hard to bring that accentuate that feeling of impending doom in my photography.

    Thanks for posting these questions you guys!


  • Benoit Filion August 27, 2008 at 6:17 am

    Looking at recent photo contests around the world, I can see a trend where entries with empty spaces – read with no humans – seem to be picked more often. Devastation, war aftermath, abandonned places seem to score extra points.

    At night, it does take a special aura.

    Have you ever tried taking picture of human at night? is this because of technical issues or just different interest? Thanks


  • Kevin A August 27, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    The bright colors you often use to paint the subjects in your photos seem to give many of your works an otherworldly, almost alien feel. At what point for you does a work become too surreal, and lose all detachment from the human context? (As it seems that you’re striving to capture the sense of mystery that you’ve felt and communicate that to others, and perhaps pushing it too far would lead to a garish or cartoonish effect, rather than something sublime).


  • Troy August 28, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Benoit: It’s both actually. When you put a person in the picture, the picture becomes about that person. My images are about these places. The lack of people intensifies this feeling even more. And yes, wrangling people, posing and lighting them is an entirely different discipline to working slowly during time exposures with flashlights.

    Kevin: I’m a surrealist, no doubt, so my threshold for weird in all art is pretty deep. I’m not sure that you CAN be too surreal!

    Where light painting “becomes too surreal” is entirely up to you, the viewer. Everyone’s interpretation of what’s “too anything” varies wildly. That’s why I make sure my work runs the gamut of styles, from wildly colorful and distorted to formalist exposures lit by pure moonlight. I consciously do work for many different tastes and aesthetics.


  • Chuck Groth August 29, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    I, too, am fascinated by the eerie desolation of these found landscapes. You’re in good company — a couple of other books I’ve read, namely, “Bordertown,” by Barry Gifford and “On This Site,” by Joel Sternfeld, capture much of the same spirit. But yours is very different in that “Bordertown” is so stark and disturbing, and “Site” seeks to make a connection between place and event. Your book throws the reader (or viewer) into the scene almost without any context, like a random cut from a surreal movie.

    The photos are fantastic, in every definition of the word.

    Have you thought about picking one location and devoting an entire book to it? Really delving into it in a way not seen in “Night Vision?”


  • Troy August 31, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Thanks Chuck. Yes, I would LOVE to do a title devoted to one location or subject. I have more than enough night images to do an entire book on Aviation Warehouse, and that was, in fact, one of the early proposals that got me in the door at Chronicle in the first place.

    However, at the request of my editor and marketing, the covering of many types of locations in “Night Vision” was a product of broadening its appeal for a wider audience. They wanted a book that would appeal to more than aviation buffs.

    I’m working on proposals for new books and they will all be single subject projects. Stay tuned . . .


  • Chuck Groth September 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    that’s exciting!


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