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.
Meanwhile, a prismatic airiness holds sway over many of these appearances, imbuing them with a spectrum we are hard-pressed to believe is real. How could we have known that the glow emitted by fluorescent light is green, since our eyes disregard that wavelength until color film reveals it? The German photographer Bialobrzeski has blended this halation with other gaseous auras to convey his Blade Runner-style dreamscape of Asian megacities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. As one writer puts it, Bialobrzeski celebrates the “inability of photographic film to deal equitably with tungsten, fluorescent and neon light at the same time.”3 His overripe results are sometimes enhanced by long exposures at dusk, an immature state of darkness. When skyscrapers loom, they reach to impossible diaphanous heights. Where people appear, they look like busy specks in a flea circus. Bialobrzeski’s book Neon Tigers (2004) is a vision of hivelike urban developments expanding at punitive cost to all who live in them. Had this eerie spectacle been rendered in black and white, it would not be so unsettling.
Color is important to Moore, too, but his palette serves symbolic allusion more than the phenomena of light and atmosphere. Ordinarily, the expressiveness of color does wonders to increase our appetite for knowledge, travel, reportage and consumer goods. Moore’s chromatic sense, on the other hand, is devoted to elegy, though it is not sorrowful. It is no accident that in Detroit, Havana and Russia, the subjects of his three books, ideological ruin is almost as prevalent as physical decay. Moore might well have been attracted to those places because their erstwhile belief systems ran out of time. What can be said about the dream of American industrial might when newspapers report that an abandoned GM plant in Flint, Mich., has been raided by vandals who took its copper pipes? As for the empty lobby of a Cuban hotel, sacks stacked on the floor get more attention in a picture by Moore than Che’s portrait at the reception desk. The preserved 1950s Chevys and Plymouths that he finds still inhabiting Havana’s neighborhoods betray the fact that any supply of later models has been cut off by the U.S. since the advent of Fidel.
In Moore’s Russia: Beyond Utopia (2005), someone probably not of the Communist Party sits in Stalin’s old Yalta office; an armory of World War II submachine guns is used for war films. Onion domes vie with radar antennae at Solovki, still light at 3 a.m. Moore treats Russia as a colloquium of defeated regimes whose remains are prettied up for public instruction or ethnic pride. Most of the places he documents are socially moribund, a reality that their cosmetic surfaces fail to conceal.
Where Moore most strikingly differs from other photographers working in this vein is in his penetration into interiors. Like certain outdoor scenes, these images purvey the effect of time capsules, but their mood is more intimate, touched by his regard for personal artifacts. People have constructed altars and reliquaries with family mementos, or just left their messes around—and Moore softens the museological tone with a whiff of bedside manner. In these rooms, anything but cold, his subjects live alongside their pasts, deep within the uncertainty of their present. Of course, Moore’s concern is with the memories and attachments of others, which we cannot share, but they are at least the memories and attachments of individual fellow creatures, some of whom look at blank television screens or repose amid their treasures. Outside, we are reminded of Smithson’s unromantic ruins; inside, we are warmed by particular histories. With that contrast between macro and micro cultures, Moore’s work completes itself.
Beyond these and all such cautionary images lies public awareness of geopolitical change, the knowledge that nations are mounted on the see-saws of their economic fortunes. The “neon tigers” are the product of an Asian state capitalism that, in the case of China, bests Western markets through an undervalued currency. And the West has yet to regulate effectively the destructive excesses of its own free-market capitalism. Moore’s photographs offer a glimpse of global forces that aggrandize or eat away the built environment. These pictures are of the moment, but they are also antiquarian. They indicate the fact that we cannot tell anymore where culture ends and nature encroaches, each being poisoned by the other. It is an unstable continuum that has taken over our planet of relics.
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Detroit Disassembled, Bologna, Damiani editore, and Akron, Ohio, Akron Art Museum, 2010.
Russia: Beyond Utopia, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2005.
Inside Havana, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2002.
A Common Destiny: A Photographic Journey through a Changing World, Monacelli Press, New York, 2009.
Neon Tigers, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, Hatje Cantz, 2004.
1 Quoted in Lori Pauli, Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky, Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, 2005, p. 47.
2 Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum, December 1967, p. 50. 3 Vicki Goldberg, “The Emerald Megacities of Southeast Asia,” New York Times, Apr. 11, 2004.
Andrew Moore’s most recent exhibition was “Detroit Disassembled,” on view at the Akron Art Museum, Ohio [June 5-Oct. 10, 2010].
MAX KOZLOFF is a New York-based writer on photography, whose latest book is Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900 (Phaidon, 2007).