Hiding in the sagebrush, tucked between the folds of the soft hills dwell the bones of something. Bones of wood and metal, fabric and stone. They are hard, these bones. They have 90º angles, which time and the desert try to soften, or erase completely.
Some of the bones still bleed, or otherwise carry in them the notion of a time before decay and abandonment.
I first experienced Bodie over 20 years ago, which was fortunately right when I had become enthralled with photography. We had visited the alkaline Mono Lake—steeped in stark alien beauty—earlier that day. Continuing into the California wilderness, away from cities and streetlights, crowds and corner stores, was like pulling back the veil of modern civilization and stepping into a past living at the edges of our memory.
The road, a dirt washboard bearing all the evidence of the harsh climate of the area, was long and rough. When we finally arrived, the late autumn sunset streaked its long golden arms over the hills and the remains the town birthed by the gold rush.
It was spectacular, this place of arrested decay; this evidence of our past and greed, of our human drive to make a home.
I had my own 35mm camera, and a certain amount of technical skill. Through the lens, I explored the former businesses, houses, and outhouses. I slipped through the graveyard and peered through windows to witness the pieces of what people leave behind.
All these years later, my feelings about Bodie and my reactions to it have not changed. If anything, they’ve deepened as I become more comfortable with my dour sense of aesthetics.
I am obsessed with states of decay, titillated by the things we leave behind. Perhaps it’s unusual, and I myself have had a hard time rationalizing this preference, understanding it in the context of the human experience. Part of it is entangled with the mutability of life. We are born, we create, and we lean into the next passage. Evidence of our existence endures in some form, but our legacy is ever changing according to the influence of other factors. We become a painting turned over to the curator of time; an abandoned home, picked through for salvage, and otherwise left to the process of unbecoming.
But the aesthetics of decay can also easily be a rejection of something, rather than strictly an embrace of it. We live in a disposable society, where seemingly everything bears the stamp of built-in obsolescence; where we answer the fatigue of familiarity with a donation or trash run in parallel with the shopping trip for the new and wondrous. We don’t live in a world of unfettered abundance, and what we take cannot be put back. I favor valuing an object for it’s persistence, and acquiring it with intention so I can use it well past its age of usefulness. I suspect my attachment to decay relates to this aspect as well as any other.
There is a more simple driver, removed from this self-obsessed mental flossing exercise. Decay can be beautiful. Period. In tonality and texture. In visual framing and juxtaposition. In patterns and contrast.
The soft sable texture of disuse.
The curling of the clapboards as the wood of the house dries and peels away from its intended use and returns to some process more natural to its existence
It’s an emptiness you can step into and inhabit.