'Many times we would enter huge art deco buildings with once-beautiful chandeliers, ornate columns and extraordinary frescoes and everything was crumbling and covered in dust and the sense that you had entered a lost world was almost overwhelming."
These are the words of the French photographer
Their photographs of abandoned ballrooms, theatres, police stations and entire blocks of once-ornate art deco-style buildings struck a chord worldwide. When I interviewed them just after the book's publication, the resulting feature and picture gallery became one of the most-viewed online stories on this paper's website.
In terms of our current collective fascination with abandoned places, the publication of The Ruins of
The titles of the websites give some indication of the content as well as the lure of the old, crumbling and derelict: Abandoned Places, Deserted Places, The Most Haunting Abandoned Places on Earth, 31 Haunting Images of Abandoned Places That Will Give You Goose Bumps. Among the celebrities who have been given goosebumps and tweeted about it are
Initially, it is not hard to see why many of the images on these sites exert such a hold on the collective imagination. As the adjectives most often used to describe them - nostalgic, romantic, haunting - suggest, there is something paradoxically beautiful, not to say seductive, about decaying buildings, particularly ones that were once baroquely magnificent.
Many of the ruined mansions exert the same sort of fascination as certain passages from Victorian or gothic literature - Dickens's evocation of
Then there are the images of cities or entire landscapes that have been deserted and left desolate, whether swaths of downtown
And, just as certain descriptive passages in Ballard's 1962 novel,
What is revealing, too, while trawling through these images online, is the distinctly postmodern sense that often you are looking at a world that is more familiar from film than real life. The abandoned submarine base in Balaklava,
Elsewhere, though, the photographs of desolate urban landscapes speak of more real than imagined fates. The crumbling interiors of once bustling civic buildings - hospitals, prisons, police stations, libraries, banks - are signifiers, if more were needed, of the indiscriminate thrust of global capitalism. More melancholy still are the ruins of our once-stately pleasure domes and dream palaces: cinemas, theatres and dancehalls figure largely, as do funfairs, their giant wheels and snaking rollercoasters now silent and still as weeds and tall grasses sprout around their stalls.
As our fascination grows, it has spawned a network of amateur photographers who locate, shoot, then disseminate their images, many of which are beautifully lit, artfully composed and possibly Photoshopped. They are, in fact, a camera club version of the high-end art-documentary style of photographers such as Marchand and Meffre, or
Polidori was dubbed "a connoisseur of chaos" by the New York Times's always astute art critic,
His unforgettable images of a ruined
Kimmelman concedes that "it is only human to feel uneasy about admiring pictures like these. . . whose sumptuousness can be disorienting", which gets close to the heart of paradox of these images. The late
Though the contemplation of ruins is a long tradition in art and architecture, for some critics, these contemporary images are simply "ruin porn": an aestheticising of urban decay that elevates the beauty of the bleak over the complex socioeconomic reasons for such dramatic urban decline. In his fascinating social history, The Last Days of
Herein perhaps lies something of the true nature of our fascination with abandoned places: they allow us to look at, even surround ourselves, with the traces of decay and desolation, without actually experiencing the human cost. That there are no people in these photographs is, of course, part of their haunting power, their melancholic force. For the photographers, this is an aesthetic call. As Updike noted, Polidori "loves the grave, delicate and poignant beauty of architecture when the distracting presence of human inhabitants is eliminated from photographs". Like Marchand and Meffre, he is working in a documentary landscape tradition, but one that grows ever more formal and detached.
Marchand and Meffre have since gone on to document the abandoned island city of
And it is their life stories, in glimpsed traces - an old TV set, a rusting child's bicycle - that haunt the images of this now empty place. We seem increasingly fascinated by what is left behind - ruins, objects, crumbling facades, empty shells; the beautifully decayed surface of things. But it is the people that left who are the real context for these photographs. Without that human context, they are just bleakly and romantically beautiful, visually seductive but empty of real meaning.
A long-abandoned military gymnasium in Brandenburg.
Photograph by Thomas Jorion
'The wind whistles through a vast bowling alley where the balls sit motionless, casting long shadows across a floor cluttered with debris. . .'
Photograph by Thomas Jorion
Hitler was once treated at Beelitz-Heilstatten, this 60-building hospital southwest of
An abandoned water slide.
Mike/ unspace exploration.tumblr.com from the twitter feed @DerelictPlace
A former prison.
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