Decay And Ruin As Process vs. Romantic Symbol

There is more to ruins than ‘Enduring Romantic Symbol’

I recently had occasion to reconnect with one of the photographers who mentored me in graduate school. He always challenged my perceived ideas about my subjects and how I approach them through the medium. I wanted to have some discussion about Time as it pertains to my current subjects and ended up learning an interesting theory about decay and ruin.

I mentioned to him that I was photographing a historic railroad in my area, the old South Branch Railroad. I told him about some ideas that had been forming in my mind about the element of ‘time’ while photographing a bridge on a defunct part of the line. The element of Time, as we know, is inherent in any photograph by the very nature of the medium and I’m always thinking about Time in relation to my photographs. When standing on or near the bridge I feel what I call a certain ‘time dilation,’ or slowing in the flow of time around me. This is not to be confused with the Theory of Relativity and the slowing of Time the nearer one gets to the speed of light…which is a very cool idea. Rather, I sense time moving more slowly as a result of being near an abandoned structure.

Olympia Beer Brewhouse
The old Olympia Beer brewhouse in Tumwater, WA July 2016

My former mentor informed me that I was looking at the bridge as an ‘enduring symbol,’ an idea that has been used to aggrandize political agendas and paint them in a light of goodness. He suggested I read a paper entitled, “The Value of Ruins: Allegories of Destruction in Benjamin and Speer.” While it’s a thick academic read it reveals new ways of looking at ruins, a subject long popular with fine art photographers. The paper compares two opposing critical theories in the evaluation of the ruin. I didn’t think my friend and mentor really believed that romanticized symbols could lead to fascism (he doesn’t) and thought to myself, how could this possibly be?

Decay and Ruin As Enduring Symbol

The Nazis were attempting to paint themselves in the light of truth, beauty and moral good…

The first theory refers to the Nazi agenda for building monumental architecture. Hitler intended his buildings to last millennia so that they would decay gracefully like classical ruins over thousands of years, inspiring future generations in their ruined state. The idea is to immortalize through symbolism and aesthetics the perceived mythical greatness—and goodness—of a political ideology. (NOTE: this case is presented merely to illustrate an academic discussion; I am NOT now, nor have I ever been, a Nazi supporter and I do not admire Hitler in any way.) This is referred to in the paper as the ‘aestheticization of politics’ and it is founded on a treatise of sorts written by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, entitled, “A Theory of Ruin Value.” In fact, the author of the “The Value of Ruin” paper indicates that this political tool is still very much in use today by totalitarian regimes. Speer’s own description admits that the title is “pretentious” and cites the writing as more of a solution to creating the “bridge to tradition” Hitler wanted. Speer even presented it to Hitler replete with a romantic drawing of how the proposed buildings might look thousands of years in the future. The other Nazi ministers thought the theory and drawings ‘blasphemous,’ but it was adopted nonetheless.

Gallery of Decaying Subjects

Decay and Ruin As Process

Benjamin distrusted the ‘totality’ of Romantic symbolism…

The countering viewpoint is that of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher, who elucidated a reductive theory where the ruin is the physical representation of allegory. In his view a ruin should be evaluated thus, using this theory which is based in Baroque allegory as it represents the futility of man’s existence and accomplishments. The structure is reduced to its base elements by Time to a state of positive ’poverty,’ whereby the inner components of its construction are laid bare. In this way the truth of what it represents and related historical acts can be known. Benjamin distrusted the ‘totality’ of Romantic symbolism and its depiction of classical ideals as a false image of harmony and eternal perfection. They purposely ignore the human element and gloss over the anguish of life and the true conditions and events of history. This viewpoint was no doubt aimed at the Nazi appropriation of such aesthetics to represent The Third Reich for posterity (the “1000-Year Reich”). The problem is that such symbols have been intimately connected with the ideals of truth, beauty and moral good since ancient times. The fact that the Nazis intended to paint themselves in such a light must have been incomprehensible to Benjamin…as it is to all of us. He saw allegory as a better critical tool with which to view and evaluate ruins.

It’s an interesting and dense academic discussion, but I’ve attempted to contrast and compare the basics.

This was a very different angle for me to view my subjects from and something I hadn’t considered before. It wasn’t the first time my mentor had given me an alternative approach to think about…our discussions on my thesis project had worked the same way. And therein lies the necessity and benefit of peer critique and discussion—seeing your subjects outside the scope of your learned perceptions.

What I ultimately realized, though, and I’ve read other writing that agrees with this, the idea of the romantic ruin is well entrenched in our collective psyche. Hundreds of years of its depiction in Western art have deeply ingrained it in our world view. So, it’s not just fascists who see ruins this way, it’s essentially everyone we know. The Nazis were attempting to appropriate the totality of romantic symbolism, like that of ancient ruins which present (according to Benjamin) a falsely positive image imbued with all things good. Most of us see the ruin as something nostalgic without any reference to an insidious political agenda. For my own applications, Benjamin’s allegorical approach provides an alternative that could produce different outcomes in my photographs. That’s something I always work to achieve.

To see my fine art and commercial photography please visit my website at:

Author: jamestcallahan

James T. Callahan is a commercial and fine art photographer based in Hillsborough, New Jersey. His specializations are in product, industrial and architecture. His fine art work takes a poetic look at the American Landscape through 19th Century architecture, historic and abandoned railroads and the American Small Town. You can see his work on his website at www.jamestcallahanphotographer.com, and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamestcallahan/.

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