#192 – Beauty in Decay?


 “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it”.


 “Bleak factory buildings and billboard-cluttered avenues look as beautiful to the camera’s eye as churches and pastoral landscapes. More beautiful by modern taste”

Susan Sontag

Wabi-sabi is a somewhat nebulous Japanese term without any straightforward definition. In this context, Wabi has come to mean humble and simple, while means rusted and weathered, thus combined, the two words suggest what Zen scholar Daisetz T.Suzuki called ‘an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty’.   I was intrigued to read about this concept in ‘The Photographer’s Mind’ by Michael Freeman, and it got me thinking.

The camera is a tool unique among those used with artistic intent (if not skill), in its use to record images that are not considered universally beautiful. While I will concede that an artists palette, canvas and brushes are arguably not the most practical things to take when exploring abandoned buildings, and that the timescales involved in creating a photographic image vs a painted or drawn image are vastly more convenient, I’ve yet to see a painted or drawn image of modern decay. Sure, there have been painters such as Caspar David Friedrich in the 19th Century who painted ruins, but modern ruins tend to be less romantic structures than those depicted in days gone by. And yet, a good photograph can be just as evocative as a painting.


Maybe it is the romance of ruined ancient temples and fortresses, the magnificence of ruined abbeys that make these attractive to painters, and the mundanity, functionality and commonality of modern decay that make them less attractive to painters. Or maybe it’s the fact that ruined churches and castles are far more symbolic than a wrecked mill – a place of worship are sacred places where people go to be closer to God, while castles are a form of military might, a stronghold dominant on the landscape built to defend against any enemy. A wrecked mill will never come close to evoking the emotions of church and fort, yet, why do people like myself photograph them? People are drawn to decay for many reason, but I’m thinking of the people who go in for aesthetic reasons rather than any other, be it nefarious or curious. Maybe it’s that in our modern times, where the economics of commerce and industry have replaced religion and feudal warfare as the dominant influences in our societies, we look at these ruins of factories, hospitals and other institutions with a degree of pity, pathos even, and feel a desire to record them.

One of my favourite images is this one of Griffe Mill, near Haworth. It’s been abandoned since the 1920’s, and its thick stone walls reminded me of a castle. I think this is as close as I’ll get to a romanticised view of an abandoned building. Sitting peacefully at the side of a stream at the bottom of a quiet Yorkshire valley, it almost vanishes in the summer behind a swathe of trees and undergrowth. I like this particular image because of the proximity of the tree, it’s almost as if it is putting a protective arm around the shoulder of a friend in distress, and yet the tree has been there much much longer than the mill, and will probably still be there when the walls of the mill finally come falling down. I’m sure it would make a grand painting!!

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