Variations on a Theme: Ruins

Are we in a Romantic revival?

In the Romantic era of the late 18th and early 19th century, ruins were in fashion. Aristocrats taking the Grand Tour of Europe sought out sites of classical ruins. Once they returned home, they commissioned landscape architects to create fake ruins overgrown with ivy. These “follies,” as they were called, were inspired by a fascination with the power of nature to reclaim the once impressive works of man.

In the 21st century,  we’re seeing a new fascination with ruins, this time expressed in photo essays on once impressive structures that have been abandoned or allowed to decay. The number of picturesque ruins showing up in photo projects may reflect our skepticism about the institutions we once trusted. (images after the jump)

The lineage of these ruin projects can be traced back to  Stephen Wilkes’s haunting images of the old hospital at Ellis Island (published in 2006 after being exhibited in galleries) or to Robert Polidori’s 2001 studies of crumbling Havana mansions.

After the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 Phillip Toledano began photographing what he called the “Pompeii-like stillness” of abandoned corporate offices.  What seemed like a once in a lifetime economic cataclysm at the time has since been repeated many times over.

More recent photo essays have explored derelict factories, mental institutions and hospitals.  They evoke both a mix of nostalgia for what was once there, and an unease at how much has been erased by time.  These images seem to say, in the words of the Romantic poet John Keats writing about another ruin, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Phillip Toledano: Bankrupt

©Phillip Toledano

Andrew Moore: Detroit 2008-2009

©Andrew Moore

Christopher Payne: Asylum

©Christopher Payne

Matt McDonough: Asylums

©Matt McDonough

–by Holly Stuart Hughes

2 Responses to “Variations on a Theme: Ruins”

  1. Douglas Ljungkvist Says:

    What I find interesting in this type of photography is the (historic) time aspect. The transitional time between what was there and what will be there next.

    It might be a long time until the land/space is reused, but it’s still probably the shortest time in its life-cycle. Like a very long fleeting moment.

  2. George Griswold Says:

    Actually this “school” goes back farther than Ellis Island project. “Dead Tech, A Guide to the Archeology of Tomorrow” was published I think in 1981. Photographs by Manfred Hamm. One of my favorite photo books that documents old Apollo launch site, wharves, etc. Amazon has a few for sale.