The wind takes a deep sigh and enters the house through the broken windows. It deposits a dusting of sand in the parlour then wafts out the open front door like a phantom…
This is how the Namib desert is reclaiming one of southern Namibia’s most famous and most photogenic ghost towns, taking back its territory mournfully, grain by grain…
It’s hard to resist the poignant photographic appeal of Kolmanskop. Everywhere you look you’ll find a picturesque decay – peeling paint, shards of glass, broken boards. Everywhere you look you’ll find inspiration for pictures.
In its heyday Kolmanskop, about 10 kilometres from the coastal desert town of Luderitz, was a shining gem in the dust; a thriving diamond mining town on the edge of one of the world’s oldest deserts. At the peak of the diamond rush in the early 1900s the residents here toasted their good fortune in Champagne, listened attentively to the European opera companies that visited their theatre, exercised in its pool, bowled in its skittle alley and boasted about having southern Africa’s first-ever X-ray machine in their hospital.
Today the place is a tumbledown ghost town left to the desert’s devices. When richer diamond deposits were found further south the writing was on the wall for Kolmanskop’s luxury lifestyle. Now the once fine buildings are skeletal; the debris of the residents’ daily lives strewn widely across the sprawling site. Inside the homes the rising tide of sand is already up to the light-switches, marooning cast-iron baths and old bedsteads in the middle of sitting rooms. Doors have drifted into passageways, or rock crazily on rusting hinges, window frames have been cast against walls and the tracks of jackal and brown hyena crisscross the floors of former bedrooms. Occasionally a prettily-stencilled frieze, a small piece of china, or an eerily silent classroom pulls you up short – all that’s left of someone else’s hope and ambitions.
Yet people are drawn here from across the world – these days mining for images. We’ve made several stop-offs in the past during visits to Namibia; making full use of the special photography permits, available from the nearby town, that allow access to the site for the whole day, and from first light when the place is deserted – well before the daily guided tours get underway. This is when the footprints of yesterday’s visitors, that might otherwise stomp across your images, have been neatly swept away by the ever-present desert wind – another compelling reason to be first on site.
Kolmanskop is a hugely atmospheric place and the fact you’re allowed to roam all over the expansive site and explore inside the countless dilapidated structures makes photographing here overwhelming at first. Where the hell to begin? Our advice would be to start with a few exterior shots, exploiting the subtle colours and intense mood just as dawn breaks; perhaps concentrating on the impressive, well-to-do homes that will catch your attention on arrival.
A tripod is essential to deal with the low light conditions at sunrise, but also for later when shooting interiors. Ideally pack one that can be used at low levels and in awkward places as some of the rooms are so full of sand you might end up on all fours. A tripod will also help you consider and perfect your shots – tweaking camera settings and making minor, thoughtful adjustments while framing. That said it’s quite possible to work free-hand if you have a DSLR that performs wells at high ISOs. It’s up to you. We ended up doing a combination of both; losing the tripod where we wanted the freedom of movement to go for a few more abstract, creative shots.
Try not to trample over and ruin potential foregrounds as you move around, particularly doing broader landscape shots of the town; once you’ve spoiled the pristine sand ripples that’s it.
Once the sun’s up we tend to find the conventional syrupy, postcard light less evocative to work with so this is when we move the operation indoors to where the real photographic treasures lie.
As it climbs in the sky, the sun streaks into the empty rooms through cracks and empty windows creating a wonderful, changing play of shadows, shapes, textures and patterns – the raw materials for capturing great, dream-like room studies and abstract detail shots. Each building and room you enter draws you in further and there are lots of buildings and rooms. Allow yourself plenty of time. Window frames, doorways, inner passages – provide endless opportunities to construct images that lead the viewer in, and for shots that frame ‘frames’ within a frame. The worker’s houses at the far end of the site might look less prepossessing than the big houses, but they harbour plenty of photographic potential, so don’t limit yourself solely to the posher-looking buildings. The captivating paint colours, decorative touches, surreal build-up of sand, and the surprise bits of old furniture offer a rich seam for images on this side of town.
Looking for a fresh take on the place in February this year we set ourselves the challenge of capturing images that summed up the ‘ghostliness’ of the place – it is a ghost town after all. images that might better convey the strange and unsettling feeling of journeying through past lives; through endless abandoned rooms filling with sand. We attempted this in some shots by deliberately overexposing our images to create a high-key effect. We quite liked the way this made our pictures look ‘ghostly’ pale and washed out as it the life and colour had been drained away – just like in the town.
Our other approach was to go even more abstract. We used very slow shutter speeds when shooting some interiors (experiment by reducing your ISO and increasing the depth of field), and purposefully moved the camera a little while releasing the shutter, to create a sort of ‘ghosting’ in the final image. You have to trial this a bit to get it right according to whether you want a really ‘out there’ effect or just a hint of things off-balance, it’s really up to you. When reviewing our pictures afterwards some of these more off the wall images really caught that surreal sense of another reality we both got walking around this sad, but strangely beautiful place.
If you fancy discovering the photographic possibilities of Kolmanskop ghost town for yourself it’s easy to arrange as part of a self-drive trip to Namibia, perhaps as an add-on to one of our photo safaris.