Photographer amasses cult following with his beautifully poignant images of forgotten and abandoned Poland
Hiding behind the shadowy pseudonym of Szary Burek, Łukasz Lenkiewicz has amassed a cult following in Poland and beyond thanks to his intrepid adventures inside some of the country’s most remarkable sites.
Describing himself as an explorer (“I don’t like the term urbex,” he tells TFN), Lenkiewicz’s fascination with the unknown began in childhood and gradually morphed into something all the grander.
“I was always drawn to abandoned places in my youth,” he says, “and likewise, I was always fascinated as to what lay inside these forgotten objects.”
Pairing this natural curiosity with a twin passion for photography, it wasn’t long until he fused these hobbies together.
“Taking pictures was another thing I’ve always enjoyed,” he continues, “so I just started photographing the places I visited. In all, I’d say I’ve probably been photographing abandoned places for over a dozen years now.”
Along the way, his discoveries – which he says run into several hundred – have ranged from the intriguing and creepy to the downright bizarre: for instance, a giant, rusting strawberry inside an ill-kept field – all that remains of what was reputedly once the largest strawberry farm in Europe.
In recent times, other forays have yielded a sinister totem made from animal skulls inside a forest clearing; a biplane left to inexplicably rot in a field; and a rusting camper van with over a quarter of a million kilometres on its clock.
Of his favourites, though, Lenkiewicz speaks wistfully about a car cemetery outside of Warsaw filled with scores of abandoned cars – many so eaten by nature as to have trees and vegetation sprouting through their metalwork.
“There’s so many personal highlights in Poland,” he says, “but for sure this place is something special – you can really feel its soul.”
Naturally, buildings play a significant role in his adventures, and these have included everything from a PRL era nuclear defence shelter (complete with hunks of leftover equipment, maps and, even, a calendar from 1986), to formerly glorious aristocratic residences such as the Rzewuski Palace.
Designed by the prolific Warsaw architect Juliusz Nagórski, this latter gem was completed in 1922 to serve as the Rzewuski family’s summer residence. Housing an agricultural school after 1945, and then later offices and apartments for school employees, it fell into ruin after a fire in 1985 – still, traces of life exist, not least a grand piano hungrily devoured by the vicissitudes of time, but still adorned, hauntingly somewhat, with a solitary sheet of music.
Adhering to the golden rule of leaving things as they were found, Lenkiewicz’s is firm in his code of conduct: “if something can’t be entered naturally, then I’ll never force my way in,” he says. “I treat places with the respect they deserve and leave as little trace of my presence as is possible.”
Though planning his trips meticulously using Google Maps as well as tip-offs from friends and social media contacts, surprises have not been unheard of.
“I once fell into a sewage ditch,” he recalls, “so spent the next two weeks hobbling around with a sore rib – since then, I’ve been more careful to look where I’m going!”
On other occasions, Lenkiewicz remembers entering one seemingly derelict property only to find the owner watching a film on a laptop – fortunately, he says, he was able to extract himself without being spotted.
Another time, he speaks of visiting a long-abandoned tenement and discovering the intimate diary-style confessions of the former resident outlining his struggles with drugs.
Addicted to the adrenaline surge of stepping into the unknown (“Every place thrills me,” he says, “but nowhere actually scares me”), Lenkiewicz’s fearless attitude has seen him explore a galaxy of eerie places where it is often the banal details that strike the hardest: in a Legnica hospital, for instance, reminders of its former status as a closed Soviet military town in the form of patriotic, yellowing newspapers bearing pictures of steel-jawed heroes.
With so many places demolished or renovated, keeping track as to the current status of place he has visited is a challenge, and many of his favourites no longer exist. Despite that, Poland, he says, remains a treasure trove for explorers.
“We’ve got so many abandoned places here, and new ones are appearing all the time – you just need to look carefully for them. Sometimes, you’ll find things practically on your doorstep that you’d never heard of before.”
Often mysterious and ethereal, the mood captured in Lenkiewicz’s images crosses boundaries that are serene, surreal, wistful and dreamlike: a misty war cemetery in the woods beyond Modlin Fortress; an entire village emptied to make way for a reservoir; and a holiday resort whose flaking halls and chambers are piled with cuddly toys, VHS cassettes and discarded bits of cutlery.
In other posts, Lenkiewicz presents a neo-Gothic chapel entwined by dense woodland as well as numerous huts, barns and cabins in the back of beyond. It is these, Lenkiewicz says, that he seeks the most.
“My favourite places are the objects that are found far removed from other buildings – far away from other people. I love the peace and silence and that feeling of solitude while I’m there taking pictures.”
To see more of Lenkiewicz’s incredible photos click here.