Near the end of our recent vacation, my wife was flicking through the photos I’d taken on my iPhone and at one point muttered: “Now that is a classic example of the boring pictures you take.”
During the ‘discussion’ that followed, she clarified/refined/backtracked this remark to claim that while she simply adored the landscape pictures I took (and, much better still, the ones with members of our family in them, preferably smiling and wearing nice clothes and with their best side to camera), she was far less drawn to the ones which were devoid of people, obvious points of interest, or indeed signs of life. I attach to this post the picture that incited the observation, and fair enough, it’s not everyone’s idea of a holiday snap. (Many further examples of this non-human-interest school of photography can be found in my Tumblr, here).
I’ll admit that I do take a lot of pictures without apparent life in them. The vast majority of them are this way, in fact. I prefer to take pictures of stained concrete down the backs of buildings. Nondescript alleyways. Patches of rust on panels hidden from the street. Doors that have been haphazardly fixed a number of times by different people. Empty underground parking lots in the early hours. Stairways of motels that have seen better days, and very little love. I’ve been fascinated my whole life by ruins, too. Falling-down barns. Abandoned houses and boarded-up stores. The tilting remains of wooden piers or concrete jetties, falling into lakes or lurking on the non-presentation side of the less popular Florida keys. Disused roads, best of all — I will always remember the experience of driving along a two lane highway somewhere in Virginia, catching glimpses of a nearly parallel but overgrown road off in the forest, a previous thoroughfare that had been superseded and left to crack and fade (I believe there’s a reference to this in my second novel, SPARES. But I may be wrong.)
Why do I love this stuff? Because nothing says more about what it is to be human than evidence of our absence. A restaurant with no-one in it, or that's closed down; a pier that was once worth the time and expense of building but which for there eventually was no need, the commerce or revelries it housed canceled or moved elsewhere; a road that led to a place, but now does not. Except they do still lead somewhere, of course, those roads — they lead to environments we once built and lived in and cherished, but do not any longer: and it’s that lack of cherishing, this turning away of affection and attention, that’s fascinating to me. Why? Because these ruins are us. Why did the restaurant close down? Because the person who owned it died, or moved on, or else their clientele did. Why? When? How? Things happened to do with people, and as a result the world changed in visible ways. These are human stories of the most simple and direct and compelling kinds. It’s the same with the pier and the road. We were once there, and we cared and needed and worked and strove, but now we do not. In this absence, in leavings and abandonment, lies everything that being human means.
The difference between a place when it was new and functional, and the way it is now, is us. In the gap between a bustling hotel bar and one that’s empty but for a bored waiter staring out of the window, lies us. Sitting in the mildewed remains of chairs in every collapsing house down Midwest country roads in twilight... is us. These places make us apostrophes. We are what’s missing in them, and by being absent we enable a fleeting glimpse of who we are.
It’s so hard to see ourselves when we’re present, just as it’s difficult to sum up your native country while you’re there, and impossible to gain perspective on your life when you’re in the throes of it. One of the reasons that vacations are so enlivening is that while we’re away from home, we’re not there. Our life is bereft of us, like an office building in the dead of night, all the pens and paperclips and chairs left askew. On vacation, and in ruins, we can look back and see our footprints in the sand of the places we’ve left behind — and out of the corner of our eyes, for just a moment, we may even glimpse the ghosts of ourselves.
Or so it seems to me, and that’s why I take a lot of really boring photographs. And perhaps it’s also why our species seems keen to toy with self-made armageddon once in a while.
Only when we’re gone for good, will we be able to look back and judge what we were.