The charm of roadside ruins and their stories
The crunch of old broken glass under my feet, the rustle of pigeons startled from their sleep on rotting rafters, the musty smell of crumbling walls and the view through a windowless frame that looks over a forgotten wheat field. This is what fuels my imagination.
I’ve always had a fascination with ruins. I think it’s the mystery of them that attracts me. Who lived there? Why did they leave? Was it some family tragedy, like the death of a child or a wife in childbirth, or a farm that became unproductive and had to be abandoned? There is also the immense silence that I find therapeutic in this noisy age of burglar alarms, hooting cars and bustling city life.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been trying to document as many ruins as possible, before they dissolve into the ground or are swept away by modern development. A big photographic influence was Arthur Elliott, a US amateur photographer who came to the Cape as a refugee in 1900 and had the foresight to document many old buildings with his prized quarter-plate camera as they were disappearing or crumbling to dust, even then. He would wait for hours or even days until he got exactly the right light, and found people – sometimes a resident or a model – to pose in the photo, thoughtfully placed in a scene to add a bit of drama or mystery.
I usually don’t have as much time as he did: my ruin photos are often taken during road trips when my travelling partner has to endure being pulled over to the verge of many a highway or farm road as I snap away at some rotting architectural relic while other motorists whizz by or shout obscenities at me for obstructing the road… >
But I don’t see a rotting relic – to me, as the Imogen Heap song says, “There’s beauty in the breakdown.” As the old plaster peels off, I can marvel at the skilfully built stone walls revealed beneath (sometimes built by slaves), or crudely packed together rocks and koffieklip filled in with beach or river pebbles. My sharp eye can spot pieces of pottery and porcelain catching the sunlight alongside an old ruin, sometimes still lying undisturbed on the surface exactly where they were discarded decades or even centuries ago. A prized willow-pattern dinner plate that survived an arduous ox-wagon trek, only to be dropped and broken during a careless moment, or a wine bottle tossed into the veld after the contents have been emptied with gusto – each shard has a story.
And here’s the rub: although I’m a passionate preservationist, I have to admit that when a ruined house is occasionally restored I feel a little sad. Although the building has been saved for future generations to enjoy, a little bit of the mystery and magic is lost. I’d prefer that the building was preserved at the expense of the mystery, though.
There’s still one place I haven’t photographed, the holy grail of ruins as far as I’m concerned: the abandoned German diamondmining town of Kolmanskop near Lüderitz in Namibia. Its attractive houses half-submerged in sand dunes have always fascinated me, and I must get there soon – it’s definitely one for my bucket list. Anybody want to drive there with me?
Last stand Pointing like a sculptural finger into the sky, this dissolving fragment is all that’s left of a mud brick house not far from Matjiesfontein. Brick by brick Another one bites the dust on the Houtkloof Road near Napier.
A piece of the puzzle Often I find small shards of old broken porcelain, earthenware or glass near a ruin. These fragments can help archaeologists to date the building, and should never be moved or removed from the site. I photograph them and leave...
Stairway to yesterday One of the most fascinating ruins I’ve come across is De Grendel, a beautifully built stone structure that is rapidly deteriorating at the top of Deer Park in Cape Town. Now hidden under thick bushes and trees, the house was...