Whatever the jobs they do, most buildings embody cultural forms, chafed through time. The built environment is a patchwork of styled presences, aging on undetermined schedules of decay, just like people. Urban renewal often fails to establish a new civic order, for want of means or vision, a lapse that allows nature to take its course in deteriorating monuments. Decrepitude and obsolescence contribute an underlying reality to a skyline otherwise dedicated to the fiction of a durable, homogeneous present flecked here and there with futuristic towers and their excited intentions. In fact, habitats and workplaces in terminal disrepair may be increasing in proportion to those that are still in normal use. Because metropolises have muddled histories of building in uneven succession, they cannot have any single expiration date stamp.
The idea that our constructed environment exhibits a chaotic mix of diminishing shelf lives has become a theme in some recent photography. In large-scale color prints, viewers are offered a depopulated horizon of architectural remnants and follies, evidence in situ of a mismanagement that may signal worse to come. After many years, human degradation of the earth—made conspicuous by oil spills and climate change, rust belts and polluted skies—has become more than topical.
The photographers Andrew Moore (b. 1957), Cédric Delsaux (b. 1974) and Peter Bialobrzeski (b. 1961) are at the forefront of an international wave of artists who work in a retrospective mood and manner. In his volume Detroit Disassembled (2010), Moore, an American, exploits photography’s historical vantage to picture architecture overcome by biological creep. The green floor covering of an office at the former Ford Motor Company headquarters near Detroit must not be confused with a carpet, as it is actually thick, spongy moss. At the city’s Book Cadillac Hotel, a gigantic plumbing network attached to the ceiling of a basement once submerged in water looks like a hideous, corroded red octopus, with filaments hanging down. Water damage and flaking paint announce the slow return of constructed materials to the world from which they came. When this process is revealed in a photograph, it repels the sense of touch even as its outrageous colors entice the eye. A voluptuous disenchantment pervades Moore’s work.
These artists roam over continents, equipped with film and view cameras mounted on tripods—gear that would not have surprised expeditionary photographers of the 19th century. What was there left for the Canadian Edward Burtynsky (b. 1955) to record? He began by photographing “pristine” landscapes but felt that he was “born a hundred years too late.”1 It is disappointing, this sense of having come too late upon a scene. To compensate, photographers redefine their tardy entrances as openings upon a fraught scenario—the aftermath of humane productivity, in its original settings. No matter that the results are weird, radiant or unsightly; they are also filled with portent.
There is, of course, nothing new in the recognition that limited energies get used up and things fall apart. Nor is there anything novel in the poetics of nostalgia. The rise of archeology in the era of the classical historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) coincided with the appearance of the architectural capriccios of Piranesi and Canaletto—as well as Hubert Robert’s eulogies of the Roman past. These works reflect a fascination with the degraded tokens of a once grand and flourishing civilization. The cult of ruins was quickly assimilated to a taste for the immensities of nature. Once-busy structures were viewed as if frozen in the permanence of an indifferent space. When that space was framed by a perception of terror, Edmund Burke and others called it “sublime”—in recoil from the Greco-Roman ideal of calm order. Among the architectural styles spurred by Romanticism was the Gothic revival. Moore’s rotten plumbing system indeed strikes one as “Gothick,” although whether it was nature or men that brought it to this state his picture cannot show.
The British painter J.M.W. Turner prolonged Romantic pessimism well into the epoch of the Industrial Revolution. In The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up (1838), he depicts an old ship of the line that resembles a drifting cathedral, decommissioned and hauled toward the wrecking dock by a steam-powered tug with a fiery stack. The splendors of unpleasant empires he visualizes in the rouges and golds of sunset. How reminiscent of all this is Burtynsky’s graveyard for lordly old tankers, dismantled by hand on a shore in Bangladesh. Or his tiny, snaking streamliner, crushed by the visual weight of a granite cliff. More Turneresque still are Moore’s two views, in the pages of Inside Havana (2002), showing a burned-out theater that witnessed now vanished performers and forgotten applause. However, Moore’s art, while infused with pathos, is in the end not to be associated with the moralistic sublime.
Our moment is much too profane for any mysticism to be attached to relics that are washed up or left behind. Once thought expandable without limit, the systems of industrialism, transport, alimentation and power—all interconnected—are sapping the earth of the very resources needed to run them. And gone is the day when artists personified nature according to their feelings about human destiny.
Viewing Passaic, N.J., in 1967, Robert Smithson wrote that it was a zero panorama containing “ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall in ruins after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”2 He passes ironic judgment on drainpipes along the Passaic River, as well as a derrick and sandbox there, by calling them all “monuments.” For him, a monument is simply an “object,” quite on the order of the English coastline described in W.G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants—just a mass that has been eroded, its once rugged extensions passed from present memory. Curiously, and characteristically, both writers illustrate their words with black-and-white snapshots replete with an intense dreariness, unworthy even of a common postcard.
That melancholy tone is now superseded by a more ambivalent attitude in images of landscape, factory and town. These tend to be panoramic and rigorously attentive. A shot of a tire dump by the French photographer Delsaux, in his book A Common Destiny (2009), rises up on the horizon, a cemetery of rubber strangling the few spavined trees that still have the strength to exist. Delsaux fastens on the cells and units of this unintelligible mass, worn out by past use. Elsewhere, he depicts the unfinished cockpit of an Airbus, which looks like the human circulatory system gone haywire. The integration and disintegration of connecting points within various networks are features of a drawn-out process in which structures undergo organic change.
Delsaux also depicts a gallery of comparative anatomy at a French natural history museum, with a model of a skinned man standing front and center. As for the photographs in Moore’s Detroit Disassembled, they proceed like a series of museum exhibits focused on abandoned factories that are clamorous with loss. By accenting the incompleteness or exhaustion of the things that make up our world, these pictures insist on the frailty of existence.
We go to museums to be instructed in a popular way about subjects that are often technical. Like the dioramas found in those places, some recent photographs fill in contexts and treat their subjects as specimens. Without wall labels, however, these specimens show us conditions or effects, but not causes. There’s a shortfall in the demonstrative capacity of such images, and their approach is chilly. Story content hides behind methods that are highly formal and detached, imparting a museological esthetic. But that is also where the photograph registers its true impact.
The mightiness of production and consumption turns mute on arrival when captured by the camera. Our negligent habits as stewards of the earth, and of our own prospects, are put on display, as if by institutional emphasis. The effect degrades what was once obviously functional and leaves everything, even of recent vintage, in a state of didactic remoteness. Delsaux’s view of Dubailand, a goofy theme park that includes Alpine attractions in the midst of a desert, operates as a museological rendering of what is already a kind of museum without portfolio. There is no natural scale in the relative proportions of objects (a skiing figure is larger than a nearby race car), and the desert comes right up to the wall of this fatuous compound. So Delsaux conjugates form and content into a lesson about unreflective dislocation.