All photographers aspire to take the perfect photograph, but how far is too far? We can safely assume that most shooters would draw the line at sneaking into a building at the witching hour, ascending to its highest point and then walking out onto the edge with little or no safety gear. Like this.
If the above photo looks fake or doctored, then you obviously haven’t heard of people like Max Leitner. Over the past several years, a new wave of daredevil snappers has emerged to reimagine the very concept of urban photography, each scaling bolder heights in a bid to clock up more Insta hearts than the last. In the extreme world of rooftopping, large structures aren’t something to be looked at with fear, but rather as an opportunity, standing there to be conquered in the ultimate high-stakes game of one-upmanship.
If it all sounds a bit bonkers, that’s because it is. In 2015, Russian teenager Andrey Retrovsky died after falling nine stories from a rooftop, while American Christopher Serran was killed during a botched attempt at “subway surfing” in New York last year. As far as the police are concerned, rooftopping isn’t a trend — but a crime.
To get a better feel for the subculture, we hit up Germany-based Max. Still in his 20s, the intrepid adventurer has scaled buildings across Europe and Asia armed with nothing but his trusty camera and some moral support from friends. In other words, he’s the selfie generation’s answer to Evel Knievel. Or Spiderman. Find out what he had to say on overcoming fear, safety, and his favorite photograph below.
When did you first develop an interest in roof-topping?
My general interest in exploring can be traced back to childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in a home with a big garden where, naturally, the trees became a point of interest. First climbing, and later building a treehouse. For me, it’s natural to seek unseen perspectives; the pleasure of looking down far overcomes the pleasure of looking up at architecture.
Is it as dangerous as it looks? What would you say to people who think you are risking your life?
Look at Alex Honnold, Dan Goodwin or Alaine Robert, they are considered professionals in their field of Free Solo Climbing — a sport that’s broadcast to millions and backed by companies like Red Bull. I wouldn’t consider it dangerous so long as you have a professional approach. Having had years of experience in climbing as well as other balance based sports, I think my judgment of danger is at a professional level. This, of course, does not prevent things from occasionally going south — literally.
Looking at past fatalities, and taking drug use and inexperience into account, being 100 percent conscious and having a smart judgment of what you are getting yourself into helps mitigate risk. Understanding the wind, rain, and static is crucial to remaining safe. Additionally, I live by the words of my father: always have three points of contact.
How do you pick the best locations? Is there one location that stands out to you as being the craziest?
I always consider the potential photograph, taking the magnificence of the view and architectural detail into account. In regards to “crazy,” I would say most Chinese cities stand out. Spires are a touchy subject as they significantly increase the risk level, and in China, they seem to be everywhere. Additionally, the understanding of rooftop spaces in non-Western countries is completely different. On Chinese rooftops, I have found everything from men cooking lunch all the way to ladies washing uniforms.
Do you have one image you’re most proud of?
To this day, I am beyond excited about an image I was able to take in Shanghai.
A quick backstory: It all started with the words of a friend who suggested we meet at 3am. At the time, I was staying with Jennifer Bin (@jenniferbin), who is a huge inspiration to me, and we met our friend Cyril (@roofercyril). What we were about to undertake was my biggest mission yet. Five of us quickly dodged security and made our way to the almost finished 68-floor construction. Once arrived at the elevator, we used a variety of tricks to activate its switchboard (it being 85 degrees and humid September weather, walking wasn’t possible). It was such a surreal experience to zoom up to the top. Since it was still dark out we decided to go to the apex where a big helipad was located. Cyril, being the guy he is, brought canned coffee and snacks for us and we waited for sunrise.
As dawn started to break, we made our way down to visit the architectural decorative waves on the facade of the building. At the end of shooting, just minutes before I decided to back up my camera, I noticed Jennifer sitting at the edge looking into the misty distance with the river below. Everything fell into this monotone gray, with Jennifer’s pink head of hair the only thing breaking the scene. It was the perfect image.
Who are your favourite photographers to shoot with?
For me, it’s about trust. I need to know the person I am shooting with unconditionally. Whenever I am presented with an opportunity, the first people that come to my mind are Brian Willette (@brianwillette), Sonja Weiss (@badluckbae), Jennifer Bin (@jenniferbin) and Thomas Kakareko (@thomas_k).
Is it worth the risk?
There’s been plenty of opportunities that I’ve skipped out on because it was not worth the risk. Do not overstep your fear.
How far will you go to enter a location? In terms of picking locks, avoiding security etc.
I’ve gone great lengths to access places, including passing by closed doors, running from security or hiding. To me, it’s crucial to not leave a trace and stay safe. Under no circumstances would I damage someone’s property, so unless there’s a flaw in security which I manage to dismantle in some way, I go somewhere else.
Is this a full time job? How do you see urbex photography changing over time?
There is Urbex and then there’s Cityscape Photography, which falls in line with landscape and portraiture. I’ve been fortunate enough to put together a well-built portfolio which allows me legal access to places I’ve only dreamed of, including the Willis Tower in Chicago and the Golden Gate sister bridge in Lisbon. Choosing this path as a career has allowed me to be the top choice for companies and their specific projects. Working full time in the field I enjoy most is the biggest thrill.
Now, let’s look at what makes Japanese architecture so much better than the rest.