Why Decay Makes a Beautiful Photograph

Quiver School © Jeff Burton

Quiver School

Have you ever wondered why photographs of something decaying will make people stop, look, and wonder? After all, it’s only a photograph of rust, rot, corrosion, degeneration, or general wear and tear. That old rusted junk heap of a truck sitting in the field behind the barn could not possibly be of any interest to anyone. Could it? It certainly is not worth my time to photograph it.

The most probable reason that people tend to like photographs of decay is they inherently have a story within them. We all know photographs that have a story are more interesting than ones that do not. Anytime people look at something that has obviously gone past its useful life, they begin to ask themselves questions. It’s our human nature to ask these questions because we want to classify everything into neat little groups. So people think to themselves things like “Who built this?”, or “What does it do?”, or “Why is it here?”

At this point the viewer is completely engaged with the photograph scanning the image for clues to these unanswered questions. They may study it for minutes or even hours or even spend their hard earned money to take it home with them possibly never knowing the answers to their questions, but always seeking out the clues in the photograph.

The accompanying photograph Quiver School captures the decay of a one-room school building outside Havana, Illinois that once housed and taught scores of children. The school established in 1917, was one of the last one-room schools in operation before is closed. Every time I look at this image I see the children running into the front door as the teacher rings the bell in cupola above. What stories would those children tell, who were they, how did their lives end up? These are my answered questions that keep me engaged and seeking the clues.