Change and Decay

Nothing lasts forever -- but some things last a very long time. Photography can sometimes go one better, and show us things that no longer exist. There is an undoubted fascination in peering into the lives of yesteryear, especially when you start to put yourself in the place of our forebears.

For example, cutting logs for the fire is hard enough work with a chain saw. Now imagine doing it with a bow saw. If you wanted to wash afterwards, there was no running hot water -- or even running water. Water had to be drawn from the well, and then heated. The kitchen range is essentially a 19th century invention, so until then, you'd use a pot over the fire. Which would get sooty...

This is a good example of the truth that by definition, what survives from the past is often worn, corroded, rusty or just plain dirty. So why would anyone want to photograph it?

Well, part of it is nostalgia; part of it is curiosity; but there's also the eminently photographic argument that there are wonderful shapes and textures to capture, and numerous techniques to explore. Photographing change and decay is very much more than just a branch of record photography, though equally, if you want to approach it that way, it can tax your technical recording skills to the limit.

 

Pot on fire-jack

 

Frances took the original shot on HP5 Plus using a Nikkormat and Sigma APO zoom, probably at about 180mm. She then sandwiched the negative with a negative bag before printing it on Ilford Multigrade IV; the result resembles a Calotype print from the dawn of photography.

And yet, fire-jacks (the serrated, adjustable bars-hooks for hanging pots above the fire from a transverse bar inside the chimney) are still an everyday sight at any vide-greniers (swap meet, car boot sale) in the part of rural France where we live.

stew pot
attic stairway

 

Stairway, Chateau de Berrie

Food, shelter, companionship... The needs of mankind have never changed, but if we look at how they were met in the past, we can learn a lot about how people have met these needs over the years; how their priorities (and wealth) differed from ours; and possibly, even how there are things in our own lives that we can change to suit our own preferences better.

For example, we like bare wood and stone, and things that are hand-made, such as this staircase, which is why we live in a centuries-old house (not this one!); but Roger's father hates old houses, and prizes the 'mod cons'; his house was built in the 1960s.

Roger took this picture with a Leica M8 and 18/4 Zeiss Distagon; the camera was on a tripod to ensure truly vertical verticals.

Shapes

The shapes of things from the past are often different from the shapes of things today, typically because they were hand-made. Making something by hand often imposes its own logic on the shape, in just the same way that mass production via injection-moulding or sheet-metal pressing imposes its own logic.

Neither hand fabrication nor mass production is inherently superior. Mass production is cheaper, and (if it is done right) more reliable, at least in the short term. But things made by hand are often more attractive.

Also, things that are hand made are often more reparable. Because someone put them together by hand, from a number of more or less comprehensible bits, someone else can usually replace or repair parts that are damaged or missing. For example, we bought a fire-jack that was missing its locking loop at a vide-greniers (literally, 'emptying of attics') for three or four euros. Five minutes with a hacksaw, a hammer and some soft iron rod was all it took to fabricate a replacement part. There is a pleasure in understanding and repairing things, and photographing the way that things change and decay can help us to do this.

loose boxes

Stalls and ladder, stables, Chateau de Berrie

In the modern world, we are so accustomed to uniformity and near-perfection that it sometimes comes as a shock to discover how casually our ancestors used to make things, and still more, how casual their repairs sometimes were: look at the rungs on this ladder. Today, the sheer age of the wood would make anyone hesitant about actually using the ladder, but it is a welcome reminder that we don't always have to rely on machine-made goods and soulless uniformity; we can make and repair things for ourselves. Roger; Leica M8; Zeiss 18/4 Distagon.

To continue with the theme of shapes, Japanese art prizes asymmetry. Sometimes, function seems almost to be subordinated to form in the interests of aesthetics. The natural black and white stones for the traditional board game of go, for example, should slightly overlap when they are placed on the board. The first time you play with such stones, after using modern machine-made Smarties-type stones, there can be a slight feeling of irritation: the stones are 'too big'. Then you realize that there is the aesthetic advantage of non-uniform stones and the purely practical advantage that the stones cannot move around as much if the board is accidentally jogged.

Even with things that are mass produced, shapes change with time. You can call it fashion, if you like, but that implies change for change's sake: this is more like a zeitgeist, a spirit of the age. One of the most noticeable features of old photographs from most of the 20th century is the 'funny old cars' -- though before the Great War they are more conspicuous by their absence. You can usually guess the vintage of a car to the nearest ten or at least twenty years, even if you have no interest in cars, though of course there may be more old cars on the street than new, especially in (for example) Cuba.

Rusty wreck

Once, this was someone's pride and joy. Later, perhaps, it was a young man's first car: maybe he proposed to his girlfriend when they were out in it one day. And then, a couple of owners later -- or perhaps the once-young man kept it for sentimental reasons -- it broke down, but not irreparably. The owner parked it near his shed, to fix it when he got around to it. Then, as it deteriorated, a friend begged the wheels off it; children broke the windows...

Frances photographed it with a Voigtländer, as far as we recall a Bessa-R with 50/1.5 Nokton and yellow filter, shooting on Paterson Acupan 200 (Fomapan 200) and printing on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, selenium-toned.

rusty car
Textures

As well as the shapes being different in things that are left over from the past, textures are different too. These can be broken down into two groups: textures that have not changed from the time the thing was made (or the building erected, or whatever) and textures that have changed. Usually, you want to emphasize the textures, but sometimes, shape is more important than texture. Often, too, although texture has changed as a result of weathering, the change is not all that important.

wagon and flowers

Wagon with flowers, Descartes, France

Today, it is hard to imagine this wagon fresh from the wainwright, still smelling of new-cut wood, its iron tyres and fittings bright, the paint fresh and new. And yet, once, it must have been like that. Even today, it is much less broken-down than most of the old wagons you see. It is also worth noting that in this particular case, black and white minimizes the wear and weathering: the fading of the old paint, or the incongruousness of new paint, are concealed as they would not be in a colour photograph. Frances used a Voigtländer Bessa-R loaded with Ilford XP2 Super, shooting through a 50/1.5 Nokton with a yellow filter and printing on Ilford Multigrade.

power cables

Electricity sub-station, Daroca, Spain

Obviously the cement is weathered and mottled here, but that is not the real point of the picture; it would arguably be more effective if the wall were freshly painted and the wiring fresh and new. The aesthetic is that of the Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s, or of fascism: a dramatic modernity, almost, a modernity at all costs. The vileness of the communist and fascist regimes does not invalidate the impact of some of their art. Frances shot this with a Zeiss Ikon and 35/2 Biogon on Ilford HP5 Plus, printing on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

It is seldom, though, that changes in texture brought about by weathering are completely irrelevant to the theme or aesthetics of a picture. Although the main theme of the picture on the left is essentially modernist, it carries a very strong sub-text that 'modern' must inevitably slip into 'old'.

It is worth reflecting that in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the word 'contemporary' looked for a while as though it might be hijacked to become all but synonymous with 'modern' or 'up to the minute'. This was presumably the result of people reading references to 'contemporary' décor and furnishings, and not realizing that it meant 'of the same time as'; and hence, by extension, 'of the same time as the present'.

Few things, after all, are so easily dated as a refrigerator or domestic stove from the 1950s, but when they were new, they were 'modern'. And for much of the 20th century, the idea of a clay-tiled roof on a modernist concrete structure (as on the substation above) would have been anathema: too 'old-fashioned'. Asphalt sheeting would have been seen as much more 'modern' as well as cheaper; the fact that it is hideously ugly and not very long-lived would have been ignored. Today, fortunately, more and more effort is being made to use such materials as an antidote to what is often seen as the unnecessary brutalism of the past. There is no need to ape the past mercilessly in building styles, but the occasional nod does no harm whatsoever.

Softening

Often, the changes brought about by weathering seem to transform raw, brutal materials into something a lot friendlier: a reminder that many things change and decay before their progenitors might have wished, whether we are talking about the statue of Ozymandias or the Thousand-Year Reich.

electricity pole

Electricity post, central France

This electricity post was just 50 years old when Roger took this picture in 2007; the manufacturer considerately moulded the date into the reinforced concrete. But today, mildew and mould have broken up the stark outlines; time has faded the name-plate screwed to the wall; rust has attacked the galvanized ties and bolts. To add to the fun -- change, rather than decay -- someone has painted red and white lines, and blue and white crosses, on the post itself. These are almost certainly way-marks for sentiers, marked routes for walkers that abound in rural France. Leica M8; Zeiss C-Sonnar 50/2.

Rendering texture

There are essentially two ways to render texture. One relies one the camera; the other, on the brain (there is of course a paid module on texture). We'll look at the camera approach first.

This is the most obvious approach, and simply consists of recording the texture in as much detail as possible. The easiest way to do this is with the largest format available to you -- or at least, with the largest format you can conveniently use.

Regardless of format, you will almost always record textures more faithfully with the aid of a tripod, the sharpest lens you can use, and either fine-grained film or a higher pixel count. In the latter case, a great deal also depends on the nature of the anti-moiré screen in the camera and the sharpening algorithms used.

Church of St. Martin, Noizé

In this thousand-year-old church, the stones themselves are battered and worn, never mind the flaking whitewash and the spreading mould. A KowaSix (6x6cm) with standard 85mm f/2.8 lens allowed Roger to capture a lot more texture than would have been possible with 35mm, let alone with a digital camera, even though he was shooting on Maco Cube 400 film (predictably, ISO 400). Print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

st. martin interior from altar

The second approach -- the one that relies on the brain -- has a very simple foundation: memory. We know what things look like, feel like and even smell like: who can forget the cool, damp smell of ancient cellars or (by extension) of old stone anywhere? The trick is to call up the viewer's memories: to press memory buttons, if you like.

donjon interior

Interior, Donjon de Moncontour

The donjon -- the main keep of the castle -- was begun by Fulk Nerra (Fulk the Black) in about 1020 AD. The exterior was restored in the late 20th century, and a roof added to protect the interior from further damage. At the same time, stairs were added at the lower storeys and the spiral staircase in one of the corners was restored; the view from the roof is impressive, though it is a long, hard climb.

This picture is frankly soft, for a number of reasons. It was hand-held, so some resolution has been lost to to camera shake. The ISO was turned up high: there is not a lot of light in the interior. This means that noise has gobbled up still more sharpness. And if you look under the biggest, nearest window, you can see an example of the notorious streaking of the Leica M8 which Roger used to take the picture, using a 15mm f/4.5 Voigtländer lens.

Even so, there are plenty of things to prompt our memories. The stones are clearly rough, and even if we do not consciously notice the green mould on the arch beneath the roof, our subconscious probably clocks it. The railings and the new carpentry of the roof give us further clues; we expect the wood to be rough-sawn, not planed, because of the sort of structure it is. Our expectations would be right, too; but there is absolutely no rendition of the texture of the wood in the image seen here on screen.

The suppression of texture

The persistence of memory means that there can even be times when it is expedient to suppress texture and unwanted detail, and allow the shapes to tell their story. This can be done in countless ways, including printing through a neg bag as seen in the first picture in the module -- but an interesting option is the use of soft focus. Again, there is a whole soft focus module in preparation, but it is a subject worth touching upon here.

bicycle in back yard

Bicycle, back yard

There are mixed messages here. Bicycle: old fashioned. Overbury mountain bike: modern, high tech. Old stone: easy. White enamelled stove pipe: easy. Rather ugly modern barbecue: sorry, don't want to know. This was one of the first test shots that Roger took with the 90/4 Dreamagon on the Nikon D70, a combination he has since come to regard very highly. The fact that it has a 'change and decay' mood to it was pure luck -- but it was also the beginning of many more pictures (not always as successful) with the same mood.

Colour and black and white

Of the ten pictures that have appeared so far in this module, five have been in black and white and five in colour. This is because we firmly believe that you can photograph change and decay in either medium.

On the other hand, it is always said that you can best teach what you most need to learn, and (as ever) we learned a fair amount about our own photography when producing this module.

For the most part (with the notable exception of the first picture in the module) the black and whites tend to be more literal than the colour: they are sharper, and tell rather more of the story than the fragmentary visions that seemed to us to suit the theme in colour. It is not that the imagination is left with nothing to do: rather, that it is more strongly directed, with less ambiguity.

Courtyard

This is a corner of the courtyard behind our house; you can see from the shadows that this bit is covered. The pump is original, but no longer works; the wood is for heating the house (it's towards the end of winter); and the things on the wall are a mixture of use and ornament. Roger put an original 90/2 Summicron on his Leica M8 for this shot; it's frankly soft at full aperture, but this lends a sort of romantic glow to the image. A sharp picture doesn't have the same mood.

pump and woodpile

To some extent, it is true, the difference in style is because most of the black and white is Frances's, and all of the colour is Roger's. Long ago, Frances described much of Roger's work as being 'like something you see only briefly, as if you were walking past a doorway, or only part of the whole, as though you were peering through a small window'.

sunshade

Conversely, Roger would describe Frances' style as partaking of 'that peculiar clarity you get when you notice something, and give it your full attention. Even if you have seen it a hundred times, it is as if you are seeing it for the first time'.

This may also explain our different preferences with equipment. Frances prefers a tripod; if it is feasible, she may well go for medium format. In addition, she tends to take much more time over each picture. We'll come back to equipment later on.

Sunshade, South of France

This is one of Frances's favourite pictures, taken with her Alpa 12S/WA on 6x9cm Ilford HP5 Plus using a 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo Grandagon. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, toned with Fotospeed Selenium.

When we enlarge from medium format, we normally make quite small prints -- rarely more than a 3x enlargement -- because we find that this gives a picture with similar richness and detail to a large format contact print. In particular, a 3x enlargement from Linhof's 56x72mm '6x7 cm' is almost exactly whole-plate (6½ x 8½ inches).

The wear and tear here is modest, but the uneven bamboo sun-shade and the weathered stones are definitely of another era.

Colour and saturation

The saturation levels of colour films have increased enormously over the years, usually with the Old Guard complaining that the latest, most saturated films are 'too saturated', 'unnatural' or 'garish'. The problem has become all the more acute in the last decade or more, because of the ease with which colours can be turned up in Adobe Photoshop and kindred image manipulation programs.

In most tests of which we are aware, though, the truth is that the most saturated colours in the subject are normally more saturated than even most saturated colours in the picture. Garishness remains a fair charge in many cases, though, because the less saturated colours in the picture may also be boosted, so that (for example) a normal facial complexion starts to resemble a slab of fresh-cut meat. As a general rule -- and it is no more than a general rule -- less saturated colours better meet our psychological expectations of how something old should look. After all, we all know that colours fade, so we expect faded colours.

pont en royans

Pont-en-Royans (France)

The picture on the left does not look over-saturated -- until you look at the picture on the right. Of course, you may feel that the saturation on the right is too low, and that something in between would be more appropriate. You may even feel that the picture on the left is better. That's fine. What is important is that you think about it at all, instead of automatically accepting whatever your digital camera or (as here) film serves up.

As far as he remembers, Roger shot this with his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX, partially trueing up the verticals in Adobe Photoshop after scanning the slide.

pont en royans, desat.
Equipment

We have already said that we tend to prefer slightly different equipment, and that we work in rather different ways. The thing is, though, that our respective styles tend to be carried over, regardless of the actual equipment either of us is using. There is a lot of overlap -- sometimes we cannot remember which of us shot a particular picture, and sometimes we both shoot substantially the same picture -- but equally there are shots that we can look at and assign immediately; or which, if we had both shot, only one of us would print or use.

Trailer, debris, wasteland, Daroca (Spain)

Sharp; black and white; out of doors; Frances. Here she used one of the then-new Zeiss Ikon lenses (we had 21-25-28-35-50mm, and this looks like the 50mm f/2 Planar), probably on the then-new Zeiss Ikon body, shooting on Kodak Tri-X and printing on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. What we find interesting about this shot is that it speaks of the relatively recent past -- pneumatic tyres, not iron rims -- but also of an era that has gone from most of Europe, of a rather roughly finished wooden-bodied trailer. In fact, we wonder if it was not converted from a horse-drawn cart. Similar carts, with the horse harnessed on one side of a central pole (which would of course need to be much longer) were still found in Transylvania when we were last there in 2007. And the arrangement on the front does look uncommonly like the remains of a seat (with arms) and a foot-board.

As with any kind of photography, you need to suit your subjects to what you can photograph, and you naturally gravitate towards the subjects you can shoot best (or you give up photography, or you change your camera). Increasingly, because we like to travel light, we use 35mm or rangefinder cameras. Even then, the focal lengths we prefer vary. On film, Roger uses 35mm most; then 75mm; then 21mm. Frances prefers 50mm first; then 18mm; then 90mm, though the 18mm is a fairly recent addiction following the loan for test of the Zeiss 18/4 Distagon. You might think that the difference between 15mm and 18mm, or 18mm and 21mm, was pretty small. So it is, but it's a bit like falling in love: it is not always something you can control all that well. Subscribers click here for a review of the 18mm.

governor's palace

Italian Governor's palace, Rhodes

When the Italians occupied Rhodes, from 1912 to 1945, they built a number of grandiose, mock-ancient and ultimately rather shoddy buildings, quite often mimicking older materials with reinforced concrete. Roger shot this with a 4x5 inch Toho camera -- among the lightest 4x5 inch monorails that you can buy -- fitted with a 120/6.8 Schneider Angulon (not Super Angulon) lens, roughly the equivalent of a 28mm shift lens on full-frame 35mm. As you can see from the edge artifacts, he used Polaroid Type 55 P/N film. The dire scratch to the left of the arch was the result of inadvertently washing the negative (in the hotel room shower) with hot water, in its Polaroid basket; at which point the emulsion rubbed off. But between the edges and the scratch, this looks like some ancient, damaged glass plate, curiously at home with the subject.

The important bit is not to suffer from hardening of the categories. If, after looking at these pictures, you decide you need a super-wide because you don't have one already, well, the only answer is to go out and buy one. There is not a lot of sense in trying to replicate super-wide effects any other way, except perhaps by 'stitching' pictures together, and even then, the effects tend not to be quite the same. But equally, you could approach it from the other direction and say, well, there are quite a number of shots taken with a 'standard' lens, so it would be quite easy to concentrate on that. Do not imagine for one moment that there is any objection to using any half-decent camera and lens that you own. It's your vision that matters, not the kit you use.

dolmen, france

Dolmen, Taizé, France

Panoramas, anyone? Actually, we do own a 6x12cm back (Horseman) that we can use on the back of any of our 4x5 inch cameras, but this is cropped from a 6x9cm negative shot with an Alpa 12 S/WA and Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon 35/5.6 lens -- the equivalent of 16mm on 35mm. The unusual tonality (and big grain) is because Frances loaded the camera with Ilford Delta 3200 and used a heavy red filter.

How fast do things change and decay?

A mayfly lives a single day; a flower, a few weeks at most, and often only a few days; and a building can last a thousand years or more. The photographs in this module are mostly of made-made things, because we measure time by the scale of our lives and (by extension) by the scale of others' lives before us. It can be quite a jolt when we realize just how much something has changed in our lifetime: something we see every day, perhaps, so that the incremental changes are so tiny that we never notice them. Then we see a photograph of how it looked when we were young...

Sometimes, too, we can achieve interesting effects by the juxtaposition of old and new. The old is worn; the new is not -- yet! Give it time, and it too will fade. But will it be as attractive when it has faded?

cross and elephant grass

Cross

The cross is probably only a few decades old -- but the grass grows every year. Roger shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus with a 50/1.5 Nokton plus B+W yellow filter; the camera was probably a Bessa-R2. Frances made the print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

graffiti and poster

Wall, graffiti, poster, Arles

The graffiti must be recent; the poster is at most a few days old; the utility cupboard, maybe a decade or two; the wall, perhaps centuries. Roger loaded his Leica MP with Kodak EBX ISO 100 slide film for this picture; the lens was probably his 35/1.4 Summilux.

christ in the wilderness

Christ in the Wilderness

This is the village of Janovas in northern Spain, abandoned (unwillingly) by its inhabitants for a Franco-era hydro-electric project that never came to anything. It is an eerie place. The church (of which this is a side-chapel) is now used as a cattle-byre. Roger took this picture with his Leica M8 and a 15/4.5 Voigtländer Super-Wide-Heliar.

service incendie

Old fire station, Moncontour

As already noted, determined 'modernism' can date faster than more traditional subjects. It is not just the fading and weathering that makes us aware of the passage of time: when something is determinedly 'modern' it makes us all the more aware of the passage of time. Roger was trying out the 75/2.5 Summarit on his M8 when he took this.

Separating personal and universal experience

When you look at your photographs -- any photograph, not just 'change and decay' -- you need to ask yourself if the emotions it evokes in you are based on your other memories of the subject. Are you remembering the weather; the people you were with; the fact that you were cheerful or depressed that day..?

Consider the possibility too that a caption may affect the way that someone feels about a photograph. Some purists maintain that a picture should never need words to support it, but like most purist doctrines, this is disputable.

Riverside, Moncontour

Think of a summer's day; think of heavy, damp air, of the smell of decay intermingling with the smell of fresh growth, of fresh-cut grass in a garden nearby. Then this picture may say a lot more to you. Do these words of explanation detract from the picture? Clearly not. Rather, they add to it. Yes, it might be possible to take a picture that conveyed the same message and did not need a caption, and it might well be a better picture; but this does not entirely negate a picture that does benefit from some explanation. Roger used the Nikon D70 and 90/4 Dreamagon for this picture.

riverbank, france
minas de cobre shed

Minas de Cobre, Santos Domingos (Portugal)

Here, the caption adds little or nothing to Frances's picture, taken with a 6x7cm 'baby' Linhof with a 105/3.5 Schneder Xenar. It is every abandoned industrial building, gone to rack and ruin.

Except, of course, that many people may be interested in where it is -- perhaps so they can go and photograph it -- and some may be interested in the detail of which camera was used, because it is much easier to take a picture like this if your camera has a rising front (or a 'perspective correction' lens). Ilford XP2 Super printed on Ilford Multigrade IV.

The Bottom Line

We hope that this module demonstrates two things.

The first is that you can take pictures of change and decay with almost any half-decent camera and lens, though obviously, some are more suitable than others for particular styles of photography. The same goes for colour and black and white.

The second is that although some people say that you should never think too hard about taking pictures, but just go out and take them, this is at best a half truth.

Unless you think about how and why a picture works, it can be quite hard to achieve a particular effect, and even harder to select the pictures that make a specific point. This module has been quite heavily 'picture driven', because there really isn't that much to say that cannot be illustrated better with pictures; but we hope you've found it useful.

 

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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks