On Negativity and Decay

I get a bit discouraged from time to time when I realize that a great deal of photography features distress and negativity. I am, of course, referring to the standard images of war, pestilence, disease, and homelessness. I understand that there are socially active photographers that feel they need to bring certain conditions to light in the hope of changing the world and good on ‘em. I also understand the media concept of “if it bleeds, it leads”. Yet I cannot help but think that we, as a society, would be better or if we spent more time than we do with the photography of say, Martin Parr, or DeWitt Jones.

Another bothersome thing, or trend, if you will, in photography is what we can refer to as “decay porn”. This is exemplified by the whole “urbex” (urban exploration) fad of going into abandoned or otherwise restricted spaces and photographing/videoing them. Not to mention that every film photographer ever, has to take at least one photo of an abandoned gas station. Admittedly, I have been guilty of the gas station thing and a few other abandoned and dilapidated structures. I struggle with the psychology behind making these images. What are we trying to document? Is the motivation nostalgia? If so, why are we showing the worst remnants of the past? Why, as a society are we so fascinated by decay and destruction? Perhaps these images demonstrate a certain amount of societal angst, and a sense of “there but for the grace of god go I”? I think it’s worth considering. Perhaps though, on the other hand, it’s a way of rationalizing our future against our past, and dealing with the inevitable mortality of everything.

Even a simple genre like landscape photography has been infiltrated by this phenomenon. It seems we now need to make our landscapes moody and dark because they sell better. Or is it reflective of an ever growing societal inability to fully accept change at the current pace?

Of course, there are plenty of positive images out there, most are taken as a personal memory of a particular time, event, thing, or person. They are soon forgotten and few people ever see them. Except now, maybe on instagram. Which just might be the whole point of instagram. Others are taken as part of a personal documentary project by amateur photographers and may one day be published, or not.

I, myself, have a relatively small Instagram following and don’t really care if it gets bigger. I follow a few photographers and a few photography related hashtags. Ultimately I am among the guilty because I rarely ever give a “like” to a “pretty picture” I usually look for photographs that stimulate a strong inner response. However, not all images that generate this inner response are negative. I do look for positivity, especially in the challenging times we live in. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find though.

Years ago I subscribed to Outdoor Photographer magazine for one reason only – to read DeWitt Jones’ monthly column Basic Jones where he explores the inner and spiritual side of photography. In one of his columns he made the argument for what he called “random acts of senseless beauty” an ideal that is easy to quantify but difficult to execute. The challenge of course, for the thinking photographer is to create a “pretty picture” but with meaning.

Meaning is the core of photography. As a photographer, meaning is possibly the most difficult thing to convey. Authors are free to express their views and concepts in words through a nearly unlimited available vocabulary with which to convey their ideas. For a writer there is a broad spectrum of ways to express themselves. Photographers are not similarly blessed. Compared to writing, the photographic arts have a somewhat narrow palette available. 

Perhaps this is the motivation behind the negativity in imagery. That anger, sadness, and regret are stronger emotions that leave a more profound imprint on the psyche than are joy, happiness, and anticipation.

I have deliberately not captioned any of my photos in this post. The technical details are unimportant and the meaning (if any) is up to the viewer to decide.

In the end, all photography matters and what you create is up to you. Try a few “random acts of senseless beauty” it just might catch on.

Stay safe and see the world you own way.

Thanks for reading.