“Could nature ever obliterate all our traces? How would it undo our monumental cities and public works, and reduce our myriad plastics and toxic synthetics back to benign, basic elements? Or are some so unnatural that they’re indestructible? And what of our finest creations – our architecture, our art, our many manifestations of spirit? Are any truly timeless, at least enough so to last until the sun expands and roasts our Earth to a cinder?”
Alan Weisman - The Earth Without Us
The above image was made as part of an assignment for a black and white film photography course I did in school – with an Olympus manual camera and Ilford Delta 400 film. It was part of my earliest serious forays into photography, and looking back at other images I made during that time, a lot of them are of old things: decaying infrastructure, abandoned furniture, aging wood and things like that.
And while I now consider myself a nature photographer; focusing on the natural world with all it’s beauty and subtlety – I still have a penchant for old things and don’t hesitate to include them in my work, or even make them the sole focus of it. I occasionally ask myself why that is, what is it about these abandoned objects that draws me in and makes me want to include them in my compositions. And the answer that I keep coming up with is directly related to my philosophy in life.
As humans, we take great pride in our creations. Aside from modern electronics and appliances, which are the victims of planned obsolescence, we usually make the things we design and build to the highest standards available in our time with the goal of having them last for centuries to come. But inevitably, all things become obsolete and get left behind where they decay and slowly become part of the natural world again. According to the book The World Without Us by science journalist Alan Weisman, if humans were to disappear tomorrow it would only take about 500 years for forests to retake the planet, bridges to fall and cities on river deltas to wash away. That’s the blink of an eye in geological time. The rusting, rotting remnants I find of things just a century old serve as a constant reminder that it doesn’t take long for things to be left behind to return to the Earth.
And I’m certainly not immune to this myself. While my images may be spontaneous creations which have a life span limited to the availability of digital storage technology, as soon as I turn one of them into a print I expect it to last on its own for decades or even centuries to come. I print with archival inks and coat with museum-quality finishes that offer claims to last for at least 100 years. But try as I might, my art will eventually fade – just as great statues will crumble and people 1,000 years from now will sift through the fragments of our finest claywork.
While this all may seem pretty heavy and depressing, I actually find great beauty in the process of decay – in seeing something that once had a very utilitarian purpose turned into an artifact, a curiosity or even a work of art unto itself. And we are lucky to live in the golden age of humanity, in which we have the capacity to travel about and observe these remnants of the past – along with technology at our fingertips to preserve them at least for a time by capturing images.
It’s ultimately all for naught because a camera will never be invented that can halt the natural processes of the world. But we can certainly enjoy them along the way.