In Love With Rust: Photography’s Obsession With Modern Urban Ruins

Some photographers take pictures of babies.  Others specialize in the darker side of life and produce images that help us ruminate on time, death and decay.  Among this latter group is the late Sir Simon Marsden, whose photographs of haunted ruins and Gothic scenes are among the most celebrated of the twentieth century.

(Images: The Marsden Archive, reproduced with permission)

Along with Richard Nickel, a Polish-American photographer who chronicled demolished buildings in Chicago, Marsden is regarded as a pioneer photographer of ruins.  Recently, scenes of ruins have become hot again, thanks mainly to a book and exhibition by two young French photographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.  Over five years, Marchand and Meffre pointed their cameras at America’s most illustrious modern ruin, the city of Detroit, and the results have been published as a book, The Ruins of Detroit, and in a travelling exhibition which arrived in London earlier this year.

All of which begs the question: what is it about ruins that draws photographers in, and continues to fascinate them?

(Images: The Marsden Archive, reproduced with permission)

Some attribute it to the role ruins play as our “brooding unconscious.”   In the same way zombies are said to represent our guilt over forgetting the dead, ruins are said to embody a similar guilt over civilization’s unchecked progress. Others have a derogatory term for it, “ruin porn” – which is another way of saying these images are sensationalistic and nothing more.

Whatever the fascination, there doesn’t seem to be any lack of photographers today willing to tackle the subject.  Contemporary artists aim their cameras at ruins and bring us images worlds away from Marsden’s and Nickel’s.

(Photographs copyright Shaun O’Boyle, see license agreement)

Shaun O’Boyle has been lugging his camera up and down the east coast of America since the 1980s, documenting architectural, urban and industrial subjects.  His most recent collection, Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region, is available now, and along with images of abandoned steel works and penitentiaries, includes haunting scenes such as half-sunken vessels suspended in an abandoned boatyard.  O’Boyle works with a documentarian’s zeal. “I use the camera as a note taking tool, a way of making a record of what I find interesting,” he says.  His photos provide a valuable glimpse of the other America that exists on the flip side of mega malls and suburban sprawl.  See more of O’Boyle’s work here.

(Photograph copyright Shaun O’Boyle, see license agreement)

While some urban explorers prefer naturalism in order to let these majestic subjects speak for themselves, others like Sven Fennema adopt a different approach. His highly-processed images of abandoned hospitals, army barracks and hotels, while visually arresting, are like stepping into a virtual world where everything seems hyper-real.  Perhaps that’s the point. After all, for some, the best way of engaging with the past is by observing it through the prism of the present. View Fennema’s work here.

(Images: Sarah Schönfeld, reproduced with permission)

On the other end of the spectrum is artist Sarah Schönfeld, who turned to photography in order to document the settings of her East Berlin childhood, many of which, through historic circumstance, now lie abandoned or ruined.  Her Wende Gelände series includes memorable images of an abandoned swimming pool where Schönfeld used to train, as well as an empty building that used to house her primary school.  Despite their formal austerity and haunting air, these pictures were inspired by a simple and touching desire on Schönfeld’s part: “I tried to say goodbye through my photographs,” she told Der Spiegel earlier this year.

(Images: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, reproduced with permission)

The undisputed current stars of ruins photography are Marchand and Meffre, whose photographs have been featured everywhere from Time Magazine to L’Espresso. Building on the work done by Camilo Jose Vergara, whose camera documented urban blight in Detroit, Camden, New York and Chicago beginning way back in the ‘70s, Marchand and Meffre have found popular and critical acclaim with their photographs of the ruined metropolis.

(Images: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, reproduced with permission)

“No less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, [the ruins of Detroit are] remnants of the passing of a great Empire,” they say. Embedded in their photographs is an implicit critique of the logic of industrial revolutions. “The logic that created the city also destroyed it.”  It’s a phrase worth keeping in mind as you gaze upon their stern, yet beautiful images.

(Images: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, reproduced with permission)

So what can we say about the current state of photography’s relationship with ruins?  Healthy, it seems.  But quite different from what it was once.  Marsden may have pioneered the art with shots of abandoned castles and spooky rural scenes, but today’s practitioners seem far more comfortable in the city.  Marsden once claimed to have felt a “force” knock the camera from his hands at a spooky shoot.  You suspect that the “force” many young photographers are driven by today is the thrill of urban exploration, not ghosts.

Keep reading – learn more about the Strange Appeal of Urbex Photography & Abandoned Places, and explore 5 Pillars of the Abandoned World.



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