Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Art of Decay

All FFotos by Robert Barry Francos

Decay can be a beautiful thing.

One of the things I learned early on in Media Ecology is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Basically, it states that chaos, in the form of entropy, is a natural force, unless purposefully stanched. IN other words, nature’s way is for things to fall apart. How punk is THAT! Nature = true anarchy.

However, it is not only music’s entropic leaning that pulls at me, but rather its effect on my interest in photography.

The main focus for snapping shots for me is performance, rather than portraiture, but I also enjoy a good road trip down a side road with my camera by my side, looking for decay and stopping when it pulls at me.

My favorite form is an air barn. That is my term for one of those flimsy, usually abandoned structures that are so threadbare that one can see the light through both walls; they look like they are being held up by nothing but air.

Also enjoyable is when a roof is collapsing, the paint is faded and distorted in spots, vines are covering large portions, or all of the above.

Someone once asked me, “What is it about decay that interests you so much? Don’t you find it depressing?” Well I don’t see it that way. To me, this kind of decay (as opposed to urban blight) is a form of recycling on a natural level. Because everything decays in its own way, it is almost like nature’s paintbrush, making each structure unique and beautiful in its own way. And if you think about it, we all like decay of some sort, such as the Fall foliage, which is the decay of the tree’s leaves, as they dry out and fall to the ground.

Additionally, capturing it is important, because it is momentary. The structure will change over time, so taking a picture truly captures something transitory and will never be again. There is a General Semantics axiom that states, “One can never step into the same river twice.” This is a perfect example of that (in this instance, the saying is the map, the structure is the territory).

Going on these photography road trips are kind of meditative, a way to see my own life as purposeful and beautiful, even as my body ages. But it also a blast to do this exercise with photo-buddies, such as friend Dermont (Orient Beach, LI; Jersey Shore; Western Connecticut), Kingsborough’s top punk co-DJ Vlad(Red Hook, Brooklyn), and Nirvana-fan Jason (Delaware River Valley in Western New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania).

Despite having an affinity for entropy au natural, even some urban blight (human-produced decay) can be interesting. My favorite form of this is what my pal (and cable access show Videowave producer) Alan refers to as my “irony shots.” I think of it more as “juxtapositions.” Here are a few examples:

* On a Brooklyn lamppost, someone put up a handmade sign on a sheet of typing paper that said, “Free Coffee.” In turn, someone else scratched into the post, “Try Jesus.”

* Walking down a main thoroughfare in Regina, Saskatchewan, there is a wall with a beautiful mural of the world, a dove and children of different ethnicities. On the same wall was a billboard for a casino.

* Two ads side-by-side in the subway station: one is for a heart-health charity with the image of a child with arms outstretched at a 45-degree angle, nearly a crucifixion impression. The second is for the mainstream film D.O.A., with a picture of its star, Dennis Quaid, in exactly the same pose. The former is promoting heath and the second promoting death with the same image.

* If you haven't figured it out yet, the attached photo shows the Bodies exhibit of a person split, and the sign for the store above it is The Gap.

In each of these cases, as with natural entropy, the image is merely temporal, and changed shortly. It was a captured moment in time, never to be seen again, except it that photograph.

A good example of natural time lapse and how things change was evident with a house I would pass often on southbound Route 81 in New York State, between the Thousand Islands Bridge and Watertown. Sometime in the mid-‘80s, a spray-painted “Bon Voyage” appeared on the building, obviously as the owners moved out. Over the next two decades, I watched the house gray, sag, buckle, and finally, after a major ice storm struck the area, it crashed into rubble. More time and the remains flattened. Not long ago, the rubble was cleared, and it became open land again. Due to a copse of trees bordering the south of the house, it was always in the shadows so photos I took were in too much of a silhouette to get details, no matter what time of day. Even on cloudy days, the spot proved to be too dark in the trees’ shadow. But I still enjoyed driving by, watching the subtle changes over the years.

To this day, when I’m in a car that passes a run down structure, I may say out loud, “Nice barn!” And sometimes this garners strange looks from people who don’t know my fascination.


  1. I love that you can exemplify this point, "The Art of Decay". There is beauty in all things and to see this one needs a differing perspective and/or sometimes to be merely shown. In our photo expeditions I've seen much decay and while I've always been able to appreciate it in my own ways your exemplification has made my appreciation that much keener. great blog, Happy Trails mon ami!

  2. Hey im always flatered by a Nirvana reference :)Those were some fun trips, those barns were had alot of nice character.

  3. And I look forward to our next photo expedition. I was thinking maybe the Catskills, considering it's the Fall... I know a great spot...