Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?

Even as we dream of shiny new futures, many of us are captivated by images of crumbling modern buildings — mental institutions that have faded from use, amusement parks reclaimed by nature, houses that will never again serve as homes. But why are we so fascinated by the art and archaeology of the very recent past? And what can we learn about our past and ourselves from looking at pictures of these modern ruins?

Photo of Williamsburg's abandoned Domino Sugar Factory by 2e of gotham ruins.

The Internet is filled with places where, from the safety of our own homes, we can travel buildings from the recent (in some cases extremely recent) past that have been allowed to fall into total disrepair. We highlight modern ruins here on io9, and you can cruise through subreddits like r/AbandonedPorn or r/urbanexploration, scores of Tumblr blogs, and innumerable photography sites devoted to urban archaeology and so-called "ruin porn."

Why Modern Ruins?

When I first found myself staring at photographs of decommissioned factories and uninhabited towns, I couldn't help but see them as post-apocalyptic, visions of what the future might look like if human history ended with this era. And there are certainly some cases in which ruined buildings feel like pre-made sets for horror movies, complete with eerie doll parts or spooky backstories. But that's not what keeps me subscribing to endless streams of ruin porn, and it's not the sole reason that some photographers devote so much time to finding, entering, and documenting these forgotten buildings.

Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?

Photo of highest interior point of the Domino Sugar Factory by 2e of gotham ruins.

So why are they so compelling? Certainly, there's an aesthetic component to decaying buildings, an opportunity to enjoy these buildings outside of their original context and stumble upon unusual images that don't present themselves in intact structures. In his book Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality, Manchester Metropolitan University School of Science & The Environment Professor Tim Edensor writes:

For me, however mundane they may seem, ruins still contain the promise of the unexpected. Since the original uses of ruined buildings has passed, there are limitless possibilities for encounters with the weird, with inscrutable legends inscribed on notice boards and signs, and with peculiar things and curious spaces which allow wide scope for imaginative interpretation, unencumbered by the assumptions which weigh heavily and highly on encoded, regulated space.

Rodney Harrison and John Schofield note in After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past that, "It is hard to imagine many people making such intimate and ambiguous connections to medieval or earlier ruins."

Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?

Photograph of upstairs bathroom in a Civil War-era Surgeon's Residence in the Brooklyn Navy Yard by 2e of gotham ruins.

Photographer 2e, who posts his photographs of decaying New York at the site gotham ruins, spoke to us over email and reinforced this idea of urban exploration as a journey into another world, one that sits right alongside our everyday lives:

[T]he real amusement comes from the ridiculous things I constantly stumble upon. A manmade space over time with very little manmade disruption brings about things you'd never expect; trees growing out of piles of documents, books being repurposed as beehives, newspapers from the 30's, that kind of stuff. Then you step out of this building and you're back in the real world—a bustling block in Williamsburg or steps from City Hall, iPhones and all. Much of the appeal is the time machine I guess.

And there is the unexpected beauty of these buildings, which attracted 2e to urban exploration in the first place:

About 5 years ago I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and curiously entered of one many abandoned buildings of the Greenpoint Terminal Market, once the largest producer of rope and hemp in the U.S. I've always been curious in nature but this experience took it to the next level. The warehouse was huge and the level of decay was incredibly alluring. I'll never forget seeing this sun-drenched wall with about 5 coats of different color paint curling with age, all at different rates. I literally stopped dead in my tracks to appreciate it. It was unforgettable and has inspired a lot in my life since. I went back the next day with my camera and the rest is history. 5 years later it's safe to say this is a full time obsession.

Photographer Eric Holubow echoes this sentiment, adding, "I am drawn to this subject from a photographic sense due to the heavy emotions of tragedy, injustice and waste that are elicited when you see something so beautiful decay."

And if some of us get a contact high from "discovering" photos of movie sets no one bothered to tear down or buildings sunk beneath the water as modern-day Atlantises, it's nothing compared to the thrill some urban explorers feel from, well, exploring. Some photographers we spoke to have been poking into abandoned places since they were children. Photographer and filmmaker Drew Perlmutter (whose abandoned tree house photographs we recently featured) began photographing abandoned buildings in high school with a friend. "Being the teenagers we were, anything off limits was fun for us," he explains. He was bitten by the bug after slipping into a boarded-up medical facility. Although in recent years, he found himself disenchanted with photography, he was reinspired when he began once again photographing abandoned buildings. "I love the decay," he says, "the overgrowth, and natural wear of an abandoned site."

Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?

Photograph of abandoned Florida cigar factory by Drew Perlmutter.

Julia Wertz, best known as the cartoonist behind the Fart Party comics, Drinking at the Movies, and Museum of Mistakes, recently launched Adventure Bible School, a blog devoted to her explorations of abandoned buildings. Like Perlmutter, Wertz, who grew up in Napa, explored abandoned buildings in her youth, although not in a documenting capacity. "As a teenager, I spent a lot of time exploring abandoned military bases and generally being up to no good," she explains, "but even when we were just hanging out and drinking cheap vodka, we were still always out in abandoned places, the most frequent being these old bathhouse ruins we called 'the castle' up in the foothills."

And the act of urban exploration can, in itself, yield interesting experiences. Perlmutter relates one story about visiting an abandoned funeral home: "I had gotten to the back of the place and it was pitch black. I was shining my flash light around and landed right on the crematorium. Immediately I got the weirdest most creeped-out gut feeling — I was very startled. But hey, it's all part of the fun."

We Are All Archaeologists of the Present

Not all people who photograph abandoned building call themselves "urban explorers." Ian Ference refers his work as "urban archeology," a term that reflects his careful documentation of and historical interest in the buildings he photographs. Ference posts his photographs of abandoned structures along with text explaining their historical context over at the Kingston Lounge under the name Richard Nickel, Jr. as a tribute to Richard Nickel, a historian who documented Chicago buildings, notably those designed by architect Louis Sullivan. (Nickel perished in 1972 while documenting the Chicago Stock Exchange building; a portion of the building collapsed while he was inside.)

So many images of modern ruins come across the Internet with little or no context. Ference believes that images of decaying buildings are, in and of themselves, a legitimate art form (and notes that the sense of impermanence that comes with looking at decaying buildings is, in itself, fascinating), but feels that analyzing images of abandoned structures, has a lot to teach us, not just about our recent past, but also about our present. "You might look at a photograph of the Loews Kings, which is an abandoned movie palace in the heart of Brooklyn," says Ference, "and just analyzing what you can from the photographs, the architectural clues, the state of ruin, and so on, you can read a lot into the photo, even not knowing where it is, about the notion of a movie palace during the era where no more than one new film would ever be released in a week because the movie industry was new. You could get 3,000 people together to watch a film on a Friday night because that was the only game in town. It was like a night at the opera. And you can also look at the intricate architectural details and realize that this is the place that people would get dressed up for, a cultural event not unlike going to the opera. Then you can consider that these days, you go to a cineplex in jeans and a t-shirt; it's a casual event."

Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?

Photograph of "alien homes" in Florida by Drew Perlmutter.

"Contemporary ruins are also sometimes considered to represent the accelerated change of late modernity," Harrison and Schofield point out in their book. They use the term "autoarchaeology" to describe archeological actions related to the present and recent past, including photographing "modern ruins." When we look at photographs of a place like the mining towns of Osarizawa and Matsuo, we're not just contemplating the ghost town images, but also the economic conditions that would cause these towns to be built and abandoned in the span of 20 years. When Ference post photographs of mental asylums that have been shoved aside and left to rot, he is reminding us of the history of mental health in the United States. Through these images, we are studying not the other, not bygone eras, but ourselves, recording ourselves, our lives, and the structures we left behind for future generations. And, Harrison and Schofield note, autoarchaeology has a low barrier to entry; when archeology is as simple as documenting buildings you can travel to without the hassles of excavation, anyone willing to risk traveling inside those buildings with a camera can be an archaeologist documenting this modern era.

Harrison and Schofield also use the term "rescue archaeology" for actions that document aspects of our culture that are in danger of being lost. In cases where buildings are demolished or allowed to fall apart in obscurity, modern ruin photography can fill in the potential gaps, can provide future archaeologists and anthropologists with a record that wouldn't exist otherwise. And the truth is that it's not just future historians that can benefit from this sort of documentation. Even photographs of buildings abandoned just decades or years ago have a great deal to teach us about our present — and photographs of mental institutions are an excellent illustration of this.

Abandoned Asylums Have a Lot to Teach Us

In the U.S. and Canada, mental health institutions and sanatoriums are particular favorite subject in the category of modern ruins. Notably, many of the building erected in keeping with the Kirkbride plan (also called the linear plan), according to the advocacy of Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride, are no longer in use, so that in modern times, we only see them in their decayed state.

Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?

Photo of main entrance of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, which was built according to a linear plan, by Forsaken Fotos.

Wertz has found that these asylums provide a wealth of information, much of which we don't necessarily see in photographs:

One of the most fascinating aspects of exploring asylums is old, discarded patient files, in which I get to see the evidence of the science I've read about. It's one thing to read an entire book about the misunderstandings of mental illness and it's another thing entirely to read an interview between a patient and doctor that happened over 100 years ago, and to see in the doctor's actual handwriting how he incorrectly interpreted the patents symptoms, not out of malice but out of misunderstanding. It's common knowledge that people were often committed erroneously back then, and reading the admission files and interviews is going directly to the source and seeing the evidence of it right there in front of me, [instead of] second hand in a book or a crowd sourced wikipedia article. And those discoveries, and illicit occupation of the spaces,are what make exploring it so addictive. It's uncharted territory, even if countless other urban explorers have been there before me. There is always stuff no one has found and new places to get into.

But considering the architecture and history of these abandoned asylums can offer an appreciation for this era in mental health history, as well as a critique of our modern approaches to mental health care. I will confess that I am wholly guilty of focusing on the spookier elements of asylums built in the 19th century, but Ference notes that this does a disservice to the fuller history of these institutions, which were actually conceived in optimism. In his essay "On Ruin Porn," Ference points out that mental institutions are particularly vulnerable to being presented in a sensational and exploitative light. Unlike many modern ruin photographers, Ference became involved in documenting decaying buildings because he saw buildings that he loved in danger of being destroyed or ignored, and he wanted to create a record of both their architectural features and the intention behind their architectural features. In an interview, he told us:

[T]here are buildings in America and outside of America that have been categorically repurposed, by which I mean to say: you abandon a house and it's just an abandoned house; people still need houses. But there are classes of buildings, insane asylums, tubercular sanatoriums, that just the entire class of buildings that aren't needed any more. You have architectural styles that played a fundamental role in the history of this nation at one point in time that simple don't exist any more. For example, the linear plan asylum, they haven't built one since 1908, so more than 100 years, and they'll never build one again. And so, seeing how that fits into the cultural tapestry of the ethos of the day in terms of psychiatric health care is fascinating.

He notes that, while the asylum system was by no means perfect, that demonizing the asylum risks ignoring the optimistic intentions behind the asylums, and ignoring the current system that institutionalizes many mentally ill individuals:

I try to shy away from the notion that there's anything creepy about these places. They're actually quite remarkably peaceful and beautiful. I guess if there's a message, it's not that they're creepy, it's the story of people doing the best they could prior to the advent of chlorpromazine, or, as it's commonly known, thorazine, in helping to control schizophrenia and bipolar and whatnot, psychotic axis disorders. And there's a definite sense of optimism in the architecture, particularly of the 19th century asylums. If there's a contemporary message, and a sort of sad note to these places, it's that they were abandoned in an era where they attempted to push people out into the community before they were perhaps even ready.

There's one asylum in Romulus, New York, that's known as the Willard State Asylum for the Chronic Insane, and this was a New York State asylum where patients who were never expected to leave the asylum system were sent. The expectation was that they were going to spend the rest of their lives in this facility. And very suddenly, in the '80s, this place was very rapidly divested of its patient population, many of whom, after 40 years in the asylums, their entire adult lives—in many cases having been sent in their early teens—they were sent out into the community and expected to function, having no idea how society worked. And that was a mistake. The institutionalization was done poorly. What has happened now is that the prisons, the prison system in America, has become the asylum system. Over 40 percent of incarcerated individuals within the prison system have severe mental illness. And they're not being treated, because it's not a hospital environment. It's a punitive environment.

To that end, Ference gives lectures on his works, explaining the history behind the sites he photographs, and is currently writing a monograph on the asylum in Buffalo. (You can also see his most recent photography through his SmugMug gallery.) And he laments the destruction of these buildings as a loss of our cultural legacy. He describes Richard Cahan's account of Nickel's life, They All Fall Down, as:

The interplay between a myopic society's wanton destruction of beautiful architectural forms in the midst of a society that would never consider burning a Picasso for no reason, and one man's efforts to thwart these efforts through photography and vigorous preservation efforts through the city of Chicago.

Ference seeks to preserve the history of these abandoned asylums, which are so often neglected precisely because of the purpose they once served:

The sad part is, America is a new country in the grand scheme of things, and we don't have 14th-century villas and 12th-century castles. We only have a few hundred years' worth, really, of architectural history. But the interesting thing is that in certain cases, especially in asylums and sanatoriums to treat pulmonary tuberculosis, there was almost a conscious effort to delete these places from history because these places aren't light and happy. There's a sort of stigma attached to the institutions and to the patients who resided within them. So where we might not consider tearing down H.H. Richardson's state capitol in Albany, there certainly was a hard-fought campaign to even preserve his asylum in Buffalo, which was really his masterpiece, because it was an asylum, not city hall.

Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?

Photograph of the Central Administration Building of the Buffalo State Asylum by Tom Bastin.

By documenting the buildings that have been swept under the rug and appreciating the history and architecture behind these images, Ference argues that we get a much fuller picture of our own history, which we risk abbreviating:

We wouldn't whitewash over history if people were aware of the full scope of it, which they're not. We see the portrayals of asylum the in movies, and it's almost uniformly they were torture shacks or electroconvulsive therapy, there were straight jackets, and so on, but you don't see that that was a minority of cases and in general, these buildings were designed with the height of optimism and frankly with a great deal of money. The New York State Asylum in Buffalo was the most expensive building when it was built, most expensive state building. So there's two sides to this story. And even if there wasn't, you look at Germany, and you look at the fact that Auschwitz and Birkenau and all those places, all the concentration and extermination camps were turned into monuments and memorials. And then you consider that, without much of a word or much resistance, the asylums are torn down because it's just easier than having that conversation. And it shows that we don't have a very evolved perspective on considering our own past or having a dialogue about our past.

All photos licensed through Creative Commons or used with the photographer's permission.