Architectural decay was not always deemed to be an appropriate subject for photography because it was considered aesthetically unpleasant. That attitude began to change in the late 1800s when photojournalists began to see the need to photograph derelict buildings as an important component of social documentation, and since then architectural decay photography has evolved into a form of fine art.
One of the earliest photographers to be recognized for his photography of architectural decay was Jacob Riis, a photojournalist who documented the squalid living conditions in New York tenements in his book, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890. Many of his photographs depicted run-down boarding houses and rat infested cellars where people could obtain a spot to sleep for 5 cents. Since Riis often worked in poorly lit interiors, he developed a method of illuminating the area with a bright flash by igniting a mixture of magnesium and potassium chlorate powder and he is thus known as one of the pioneers in the use of flash photography. His photographs were intended to educate those not familiar with the derelict slums in which some people were forced to live, and were influential in creating a mandate for social reform.
Years later, during the Great Depression, the Farm Security Agency (FSA) commissioned several photographers to document the plight of farmers living in poverty in rural areas throughout the country. This photography project resulted in 250,000 images of rural poverty of which around half survived and are housed in the Library of Congress. Although the purpose of the FSA project was to document people living in poverty, the photographs of run-down homes, sheds, and other examples of rural decay also played an important role in the project. Many of the most famous Depression-era photographers got their start in the FSA photography project, including Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein.
After World War II and continuing into the 1970s, architectural decay photography had resurgence especially in cities applying for federal financing under the Housing Act of 1949. This legislation, commonly known as “urban renewal”, was put in place to encourage cities to revitalize aging and decaying inner-city slums. Unlike the photographs of Jacob Riis or the FSA photographers, the intent of the photographs of the urban renewal era was not to raise consciousness toward the plight of people living in poverty, but to show the plight of the buildings themselves with an eye toward their demolition.
In some cases, the photographers of architectural decay have hopes that their images will lead to restoration and preservation of the buildings they photograph. Preservation Magazine, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, routinely publishes photographs of historic sites that they feel are in danger of falling into a state of decay beyond the point of restoration. Two acclaimed Preservation...