Photographing Decay

‘Dungeness’, Romney Marsh, Kent
Fujifilm X-T2, XF14mm f/2.8-4 R, 1/60 sec @ f/8 ISO 250
LEE Seven5 Series 2-stop Hard ND Grad filter.
Adobe Lightroom: Fuji Pro Neg Hi Profile.

“Decay is both a metaphor for our own mortality, and a reassuring reminder of opportunities not yet lost, to care for what we love.”

Photographing Decay

Many landscape photographers, myself included, share a spiritual belief that the land has a character and personality of it’s own. For example: whenever I visit the Outer Hebrides, I am struck by the distinctive ominous and brooding aura on Lewis contrasting with the equally primordial but relatively more welcoming ambience of Harris. If you’re yet to witness such fanciful notions and you usually end up scratching your head whenever the words ‘emotion’ and ‘landscape’ are used in the same sentence: go to Dungeness, it might change your mind.

The landscape at Dungeness is unique, there’s a vast expanse of shingle, sparsely punctuated with corroding machinery, dilapidated old shacks, rusty rails and abandoned decrepit old boats. It feels like a deserted post-apocalyptic future-scape, brimming with atmosphere and gagging for photographic attention. Given the barren nature of this place, it is surprising to discover that it is celebrated for an exceptionally huge variety of flora and fauna. Therein lies it’s secret, any building or development is strictly prohibited because it is a designated conservation area and site of special scientific interest.

‘Decay’ has long been a potent stimulus for classical painters. The Germans have a word ‘ruinenlust’ (ruin lust), that describes the curious aesthetic pleasure we feel when looking at architectural ruins or art that depicts them. Why should this be, one might expect to feel saddened by witnessing something’s demise, rather than pleasured?

At the deepest psychological level, perhaps comedy provides a parallel. Apparently, the reason we laugh when we witness someone slip on a banana skin is because of a subliminal and primitive instant expression of delight that it didn’t happen to us. Could it be that viewing dilapidation and decay provokes a similar sense of gratitude that the same decay is not directly affecting us and our loved ones or our treasured possessions?

Decay is both a metaphor for our own mortality, and a reassuring reminder of opportunities not yet lost, to care for what we love. At a more basic level, we find great beauty in vulnerability and imperfection, and our visual cortex is always seeking meaning and association: so it’s easy to understand why visual representations of ruin or decay remind us of our own beautiful vulnerability. We also derive great pleasure in creating our own narration around an image: photographs of decaying objects stimulate our imagination to question what may have happened.

Whatever the reasons, photographing decay, whether in the natural world or in a place like this, provides a wonderful challenge: translating all those subliminal emotions through to the viewer of a single photograph.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.