They were once majestic mansions, imposing castles or even bubbling casinos where the night seemed to go on forever. Now they are just places with no future, draped in imperfections and longing, waiting for Mathias Mahling's lens to give them a new life.
Disclaimer: the photographer who signs the magnificent images in this portfolio is not actually a photographer. Or rather, he is, but not full-time. Despite having visited over 30 countries, 500 places "in ruins", and taking countless photos, in the last ten years, Mathias Mahling, 42, residing in Berlin, Germany, considers this his side job (on a daily basis, he is a digital product designer), his way of sharing the imperfect beauty of things that would otherwise remain invisible forever. As he himself addmits, it is the combination of loneliness, sadness and charm that attracts him to these abandoned places that he started to photograph by chance - almost as if, over time, nature claimed its status of creator and, slowly, it starts to impose itself again on houses, palaces, churches, museums, so many other places where, for many years, the hand of man insisted on having more weight than the hand of humanity. It is precisely this victory, that of decay over perfection, that Mahling loves to capture with his camera.
Did you always want to be a photographer? Did taking photographs went from being a passion to a full-time hobby? My mother had a small drug store in my home town. She used to develop photos for her customers in a little dark room in the back and I loved to watch her. Maybe that’s why I got into it. I’ve had a thing for taking photos ever since there were digital cameras, but only started to dive into it really deep about ten years ago.
Why did you decide to shoot abandoned places? What attracts you in these places? I’ve always had a thing for imperfection. I don’t like brand new, perfect things. When they are dirty and worn down they are much more unique and have a story to tell. When I’m looking at my old camera, i remember all the rough paths and all the amazing places we have visited together. While I was living abroad for a couple of months, I had stumbled into an article about an abandoned ballroom in Berlin. Of course i was immediately fascinated. The rest of the time away from home I spent looking for more of those places so I could explore them when I get back. When I finally returned and started my mission, i was addicted very quickly and I didn’t stop until this day.
Do you remember the first abandoned place you photographed? That’s a bit hard to say and depends on the definition of an abandoned place. I have visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Petra in Jordan before I got into the places I am shooting now for my art. Some would say those are abandoned, even though they are full of tourists every day that want to look at them. The first place I snuck into to take photos was a very famous sanatorium near Berlin. It’s a huge area with dozens of beautiful buildings in decay. I absolutely loved it and came back many times.
How do you choose the places/locations? How do you find them? How do I find the places - I get that question a lot. Once you actually start looking for them you will realise they are not that hard to find. You just have to know where to look. With time you get better and better at finding them. And of course I also have friends that are doing the same thing and we share our findings. There is definitely a theme to the places I prefer to visit. I love places with grand halls, beautiful ornaments and intricate details. The more things are left inside, the better. And of course they should be long abandoned and in heavy decay. If a place is beautiful, but looks so clean as if the owners could be back from lunch any minute, I’m not interested. The pinnacle of decay for me is, when plants and greenery starts to reclaim the structure. It makes you realise that nature always prevails.
This issue is about the beauty of error. Do you think this concept might somehow be related to your pictures? Often people say my photos make them sad, and they ask me if i am sad when i go to these places. In my eyes, the decay and the imperfection makes an abandoned place much more special and beautiful. I don’t feel sad for the places, but rather i feel privileged, that i get to see them with this added layer of beauty. I want people to accept and embrace the transience of everything in this world, rather than getting depressed over it. I want everybody to deal with this topic in a positive way. So yes, I think my work perfectly fits the theme. “Beauty of Error” might well even be the name of a coffee table book with my photos. I am currently working on a book, but it already has a name: Glory of Disrepair.
Find out more about Mathias Mahling work on his official website and on his Instagram account, @glory.of.disrepair.
Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's The Beauty of Imperfection issue, published November 2020.
Full credits and story on the print issue.