The Renaissance humanists found beauty in ruins. They took what they could dig up. They thought the best was behind them, and they sought to live up to the ancient ideals. Was this the first example of stylistic revivalism?
Later on, archaeologists got to work on those beautiful ruins. Enlightenment artists like Piranesi took a methodical interest in the remnants of Classical Civilization, and produced views of it that were part postcard, part scientific document, and part aesthetic reverie.
Finally, the Romantics found ruins beautiful, but only certain kinds of ruins.
Today, the aesthetic back and forth between beauty and ugliness, the sordid and the sublime, the natural and the artificial continues, as always.
Now, there are a bunch of photographers who love to take pictures of industrial decay. Some call it industrial decay porn. Having spent lots of time in Detroit, I can understand the frustration of the person in this link. Others are clearly entranced by the aesthetic possibilities of magnificent abandoned sites, as in these pictures on Flickr. Not sure how they would feel about their subjects if they were simply unemployed with no propsects, after working on the factory line…
This color image is almost over the top, but it looks very much like factories I visited on Doremus Avenue, NJ, which is shown in the B&W image at the top. Doremus was the center of the chemical industry in the USA during the late 19th and early 20th century. (More images here.)
Is it the romance of industry that draws them? The Ozymandias outlook? Fascination with decadence? Purely aesthetic possibilities of texture, space, tone? The image at the bottom left looks positively Piranesian, while the one on the right is simply depressing in its presentation of utter decreptitude. Would these subjects be interesting to anyone but engineers if they were functioning and in good repair? (I know there are photographers of contemporary industry too…)
Plowden was making a statement, a plea, with his photographs of American wastelands, but these images seem contemplative and a bit voyeuristic. At least on the Web, I find very little interest in what the subjects actually are, what they were for, only how they look.
Coming full circle, sort of, we have the image below which shows not ruins, but a functioning geothermal plant in Iceland. No ice to be seen; bathers and boaters frolic in this Edenic scene from Dante’s Inferno. An absolutely mind-bending union of thematic opposites.