Why I Make So Many Photographs Of Rust And Decay

After you’ve been photographing a few years, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, themes in your work start to recur.

For me a major theme is making pictures of abandoned objects that are rusting and decaying.

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So what’s this about?

Why do I enjoy capturing what most others would consider discarded and ugly, not worth even seeking out, let alone photographing?

Two aspects come to mind.

1. Delicious Textures

Take a look at a shiny chrome bumper on a vintage car and maybe initially your eye might drawn like a magpie to jewellery.

But a second later, that’s it. It’s just a bright silver bumper, uniformly shiny across its surface. There’s little to maintain the interest.

Take a similar object or part of a vehicle that’s been neglected for long enough for nature’s elements to take hold, and you’re immersed in the midst of a slowly evolving and fascinating journey.

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A few years ago, the object didn’t look like this.

A few years hence, it will be further gone, perhaps starting to flake and crumble into the earth below.

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In addition, most rusting or decaying objects start to take on incredible textures, again a depth and interest that something a highly polished chrome bumper or finely polished wooden table top doesn’t have.

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Photographing in black and white as I prefer to do, and the textures can seem enhanced even more.

A close up of a decaying piece of wood can look like an aerial view of a mount range or canyon.

2. Nature reclaiming the man made

Secondly, being a huge fan of nature, I love being reminded of its incredible power.

Sometimes this can be dramatic, like waves crashing on a rock face, or a a howling wind making vast trees sway as if they were merely feathers.

But what I find even more powerful and intriguing is nature’s slow motion reclamation of the man made, over months, years, decades.

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The way a tiny weed can rise up through a foot of tarmac. Or the way that over years, something as apparently strong as metal can be reduced to mere flaking dust.

In addition this near invincibility of nature – and how it can recover and regenerate – is all the more reassuring in the wake of the state that some parts of the world are in today.

In other words, it gives me hope.

So it’s for these two main reasons – which could be simplified as beauty, and hope – I’ve been photographing decay and rust for years, and can’t see the appeal dwindling any time soon.

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How about you? Do you enjoy seeing and making photographs of decay and rust, and if so, why? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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16 thoughts on “Why I Make So Many Photographs Of Rust And Decay”

    1. Yes, I think it’s very much like that. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing and interesting, I like that insight into the whole process of decay and rejuvenation.

      And sometimes, when I photograph the same object again with months, even years, in between, I can trace the journey of its decline, which I also find interesting.

        1. Ha, yes. I think those projects where people take a self portrait every month or so over a period of years can be very interesting… The mutliple goofy selfies a day posted to social media, not so much…

  1. I think you’re lucky if you can keep capturing the same subject type in more or less the same style for a long time. I envy you. This has always been my biggest struggle with photography; when I have photographed something once or twice, it loses my interest. To the point where I am now, where photography seems to have become a major burden. I feel I have photographed everything in the past four decades, with all available media (film, Holga, compact, mobile, dSLR). So I have decided to go on “photography hiatus”, maybe for a year or so. Maybe indefinite. See if I’m really going to miss it.

    1. Robert, what you describe sounds like the thrill of the chase. Once you’ve caught what it is (ie the image) you were chasing, the appeal wanes, and you look for something new to chase.

      Wow that sounds like a significant hiatus. Whilst I always like to try to encourage people to photograph, you know what you’re doing, and I’m actually very intrigued as to how your feelings towards photography will evolve as time passes.

      1. Two issues, I think.
        (1) Toy vs. tool (again). Not really interested in the process, it’s just about the final results. When your photos look more and more like what you already did before (and probably better), the drive fades.
        (2) No blog or sharing platforms, so just taking pictures “for myself”. Apparently I do not see – at least for the moment – the need to photograph anything for myself. And I don’t know if that will change. But, I always have my phone camera at hand You never know 🙂

        I’ll keep you informed.

        1. I can see there’s a process of diminishing returns. Once you’ve photographed a certain scene or object and it’s 95% “perfect”, then there’s little room for improvement. I guess then we have to think about different angles and approaches, rather than continually improving the same one? I don’t know, there’s only so many ways to photograph the same object within the realms of what we’re happy with. Once we’ve cracked the challenge, where does the new challenge come from?

          It is about the tools thing again yes, I guess if you have no loose nuts that need tightening you’re not going to just wander around with a spanner loosening others off just to tighten them up again. Whereas the tool geek with a brand new spanner might want to do exactly this, just for the pleasure of testing out his new toy over and over again…

          I think I’ve just realised (perhaps not for the first time) that this is a pattern I’ve followed. Master a camera to consistently get an image that is CNP (as Close as Necessary to Perfect, that 95% thing again), then move on to another camera to see if I can reach the same level, PLUS see if the camera is more enjoyable or not to use than the previous one, in reaching that level of output.

          In theory it’s a never ending cycle, if you keep trying different cameras – and there’s no shortage out there, just an eBay auction and a few days away!

          On the flip side, sometimes you just want your core trusty tools and to not be constantly fiddling about with something new. The toys/tools balance is constantly shifting one way then the other.

          I know from the list of cameras that are crossed through on your site, as you’ve mentioned before, you’ve done this too.

          Yes please keep us posted Robert.

  2. You are not alone.
    Not only am I known to take similar shots, but I know quite a few others who do.
    We even had a group on deviantArt dedicated to it, until that site went down the tubes.
    There is in fact quite a large subculture of devotees of decay.

    1. I knew I wasn’t alone, but perhaps there are more “decay devotees” than I realised.

      I think it’s linked in with (im)perfection too. At school I wasn’t interested in the girls who were obviously, even typically, beautiful. They had enough attention, and typical beauty can almost be bland. I would find a girl with a quirky dress sense or a unusual haircut, or a particular untypical frame or feature. Same with my wife now I guess, the parts I’m most fond of are most certainly not her favourite parts. (For the record I’m not in any way associating my wife with the word “decay”!)

  3. Well in fact I do like pictures of rust. The photograph of the truck is the most evocative to me perhaps because growing up next to my grandparents’ farm it seems there were always rusting tractors and other heavy duty trucks and machines turned inside out in the barnyard, in various states of repair or salvage (pardon the intrusion of my trivially personal projections upon that image). Also, I like that crumbling brick wall with ivy growing upon it. Funny, in my mind I don’t exactly think of these things as decay……. they’re part of an aesthetic in that I enjoy seeing things/objects in a more elemental state. You’re talking precisely about this state of mind I guess, in your short essay. For me, this aesthetic of things in a more elemental state is entirely separate by important degrees from that phenomenon colloquially known as “ruin porn”, which is quite an interesting, wide-ranging and complicated subject all its own, owing to legitimate perceptions of troublesome appropriation and exploitation in some quarters. Hope this finds you doing well in the weekend, Dan. Thanks for the thoughtful, personal remarks the other day in my most recent journal. Really appreciated them.

    1. J, sounds like I would have loved your grandparents farm, what a haven for photography with all that rusting machinery!

      My brother toured across the US a few years back and one of the things that shocked him most in rural areas is how many vehicles were just rusting away on people’s front drives and gardens, obviously not used for years.

      Over here we have such limited space so there are strict rules on disposing of vehicles, not letting your frontage become overgrown, untidy and unsightly and so on.

      A rusting old car out front wouldn’t be there more than a few months perhaps before someone reported it as an eyesore and enquiries were made by the local authorities…

      No problem re your blog, I enjoy reading, as you know. (Though I confess I’ve resorted to reading in WP Reader, much easier on my eyes!)

  4. I like taking photos of decaying items and thought I was a bit odd but guess there are others too 😉

    There is just so much texture and interesting details from the norm.

    A decaying rose flower/bud is one of my favourite subjects to photo but obviously timing it is crucial.

    1. Phil, thanks for your thoughts. Yes I often wait until flowers start to wither before I photograph them. I’ve been known to leave a few stems of fresh flowers outside for days after they’ve died to chart their decay. Quite fascinating!

  5. Stories. For those of us over 50 we have rust and decay. A rusty fire hydrant sits at the end of street. It has seen my neighbourhood evolve sine it was a Forrest waiting to be developed. Rust = stories.

    1. Thanks for your input Paul. Yes I love how deacying objects offer a kind of history of the places they occupy. Especially if we have multiple photographs of the same object(s) over time so we can see that evolution, the chapters in that story…

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