I have a long weekend trip to Paris coming up next month and I have been thinking about how I want to develop this initial theme of abandoned buildings within the Transformation project brief. This led me to do two things: (i) a search on other photographers who have taken on the abandoned builidngs brief to see their work; and (ii) to do a Google search for abandoned buildings in/near Paris.

What is clear however is that where you have abandoned buildings and as nature takes over, you also will have decay as the building or structure crumbles under the lack of maintenance. This provides another route to go down in terms of transformation – decay as transformation. More on this below.

I will confess now that my fascination with abandoned buildings stems from my visit to Priypat in Ukraine – the nearest town to the Cherynobyl Nuclear Reactor back which was sometime in 2007 or 2008…  I cannot remember the exact time as my hard drive with my pictures from the time crashed and burned. Being there was if time had stood still and I was old enough to remember the disaster when it happened. The ferris wheel erected and unused for me was one of the most unnerving memories – the reason it was there was because the disaster happened days before the annual May Day celebrations which are a big holiday in the former Soviet Union.

Onto abandoned buildings, in terms of photographers I came across the following two, whose work I really like: Gina Soden and Christian Richter. There are others mentioned later in this post.

© Gina Soden

© Christian Richter

I like the way they capture the eerieness of the buildings, giving a hint of their former glory but also demonstrating how if Mother Nature can get a foothold, she will come in slowly but steadily and take over. In the process of the decay, the building begins transforming into something else, creating new life where the old life has ceased to operate. This is what I want to be able to capture when I head off in Paris…

Now to what I found in Paris that will hopefully allow me complete this project. There are three distinct places I would like to visit:

  1. Ruins of Le Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale
  2. Goussianville-Vieux-Pays
  3. La Petite Ceinture

The history behind the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale is one that is unsettling to say the least when we get to 1907. “The site was originally created in 1899 as a “jardin d’essai colonial,” with the goal of coordinating agricultural experiments that would lead to the introduction or reintroduction of exotic plants across the French colonies. During the summer of 1907, though, it bizarrely became the home of several communities from these colonies who lived in five distinct villages on the site.”1

“The villages built here represented Madagascar, the Congo, Indochina, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco….. It was a much darker element of the exposition that drew crowds to the Bois de Vincennes in 1907. This was the human zoos, areas in which people from the colonies worked as imitations of themselves for the public’s amusement. The faux-Indochinese bridges that remain acted as sets for these tableau, where participants were expected to live constantly under the eyes of others. At night, those working at the Congolese pavilion slept crowded into the second floor of the structure…. In 2007, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical was once again opened to the public. The restoration of the Indochinese pavilion hints that the city might now be ready to deal with its history, but it looks as if the garden will remain primarily ruins consumed by nature. This seems appropriate, creating a meditative environment that encourages visitors to contemplate France’s recent past and the passage of empire.”. 2

I am sure that visiting this Jardin will leave me contemplating more than just France’s colonial past, but also thinking about how such ‘events’ have shaped our future. It should be noted that France was not the only colonial power that had these human zoos and surprisingly we have had some contemporary examples. 3

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© Allison Meier

In respnect of Goussainville-Vieux-Pays I will leave it those who have eloquently summed it up to set out its history. “Goussainville-Vieux Pays was once a postcard perfect town, but less than a year before Charles de Gaulle Airport opened in 1974, a plane crashed into the town. Eight residents and six crew members lost their lives, and several houses were decimated in the accident. The fallout from the incident caused many of the townspeople to evacuate immediately, while others followed suit within the year, as the sorrow from the devastation combined with the sound traffic from the international airport proved too much to bear.” 4

This will be another visit where I will have to be respectful with my prescence but at the same time I will be looking to capture a glimpse of the what was once a  ‘postcard perfect town’. 

La Petite Ceinture is a different kettle of fish. This is old disused railway line that has been restored in sections into a walking path complete with fauna and flora – this is the original high line project that was then taken up in New York City. I will hopefully see both the restored sections as well the parts that have not yet been cleaned up.

While discussing this project idea with Rosemary in class, she alerted me to the fact we too in the UK have a few abandonded villages and towns. However the one referred to below is less abandonded rather than cleared: Imber

“Imber residents were evicted with just 47 days notice during World War II, for the village and land to form part of the training grounds for American troops. It was never handed back and to this day remains a training ground for urban warfare. It is open to the public only on selected days. The only residents allowed back are those who have died, to be buried there in the church graveyard.” 

The next Imber open day is in August, well outside the timeline of this project, but it still might be an interesting place to visit.

Back to abandonment proper the pictures taken of such buildings could be classified as ‘ruin porn’ … yes they have a name for it. “Ruin porn treats real, living spaces of social interaction as stage sets for melancholy reflection. In doing so, it aestheticizes poverty and obscures social violence, doing nothing to illuminate the historical processes, such as the decline of industry, withdrawal of state funding and institutional racism on the part of city planners and state agencies, that went into creating these modern “ruins” in the first place.” 5  This was in reference to decay within the urban environment in Detroit. I would like to think that the pictures I take do not fall into this definition and I will bear it in mind when I am thinking about what pictures to take and why!

© Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre

The other interesting matter to note about the definition is the link it makes between ruins and decay, or abandonment and decay, which as I outlined at the beginning of the post. We have just been ‘introduced’ to time-lapse photography, see my earlier post another possible way to approach this project brief is through time lapse pictures of decay. It would mean the item would have to be food or plant based given the project deadline and reminded me of the Sam Taylor-Johnson née Wood videos Still Life and A Little Death. The challenge of doing this at home is the time that would be needed to have the camera set up to continuing take pictures and for this not to be disturbed by other members in my household… but I’ll have find a work around if I want to attempt this.

And as a final point, we have lots of reference to abandoment, ruin, decay and transformation in modern culture.. especially in post-apocalyptic scenarios… So, I’m getting into some Edgar Allen Poe and J. G. Farrell.

Assigment criteria: 1 & 3

References:

  1. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/le-jardin-d-agronomie-tropicale
  2. http://untappedcitiehttp://www.atlasobscura.com/places/goussainville-vieux-payss.com/2012/12/13/the-jardin-dagronomie-tropicale-ruins-of-frances-colonial-past/
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_zoo
  4. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/goussainville-vieux-pays
  5. https://thepointmag.com/2015/criticism/the-art-of-decay
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