Capturing place within photographs requires an expert harnessing of light to recreate texture, mood, and memory. Often one can portray a facet of a location by photographing the people that inhabit it, rendering the energy they bring to it. But my favorite site-specific photographs have always been of abandoned places. The absence of human activity within ghost towns and skeletal buildings evokes a sense of loss more poignant than any bustling arena.
Photographing abandoned structures is an exercise in reaching through time. Within empty buildings lie the echoes of past inhabitants: people now dead or otherwise departed. Often a sadness emanates from photographs of everyday abandoned buildings, be they hotels or hospitals or other spaces once used by a variety of people. A different kind of loss comes from the abandonment of more specific structures, such as these dilapidated memorials.
For three years, photographer Jan Kempenaers toured what was once Yugoslavia and took pictures of monuments built under former president Josip Broz Tito in the middle of the 20th century. These structures were commissioned to commemorate battles and concentration camps, to honor the lives swept away by World War II. When Yugoslavia dissipated into discrete nations, the monuments lost their caretakers and have since been tarnishing alone and unvisited.
The vaguely futurist architectural style of the monuments grants them a structural longevity. Built from concrete and steel, most retain their form despite years of neglect. But the years show on the accumulated surface dirt and the surrounding overgrowth. Sites of synthetic atrocity—war and death camps—have been reclaimed by nature’s entropy. The markers stand bare, unmarked, unvisited, and devoid of their original intent.
The photographs serve to illustrate the strange human tendency to install reminders of the past and then forget about them. An irony inheres in forgotten memorials. Kempenaers doesn’t seem to criticize the state of the structures, but instead lets their isolated beauty speak for itself. The contrast between the hard, concrete lines of the buildings and the surrounding natural growth acts as its own statement. We may erect structures to remember the dead, but eventually the earth will swallow those too.
These photographs exemplify my favorite kind of photography. They’re deeply philosophical while remaining simple and precise in their delivery. They present a haunting beauty without explicit commentary, allowing the light and the subjects to speak for themselves. They’re permeated by a gorgeous sadness as they remind us that eventually we will forget our memorials, too.