In South Philadelphia row upon row of abandoned naval ships are moored together, stripped of their fittings and rusting silently. A short way down the Delaware River sits the rusting hulk of the cruise ship SS United States, a once majestic liner, completely gutted of anything of worth leaving only a hollow shell, whose memory of better days fade as one by one those who sailed on her pass on. Anyone who has ever worked in Philadelphia and driven past these silent sentinels regularly during his commute must appreciate their presence. These abandoned ships inspired me whenever I passed them. What battles did they see? What great men served on them? What ports did they call at?
Photographer Walter Arnold specializes in what he calls the “art of abandonment,” photographing scenes of collapsing buildings and rusting machinery, finding beauty and meaning in places and things that have been ignored or forgotten. These scenes are at once sad yet beautiful, like mournful poems or the contemplative serenity one might find in an old cemetery. He briefly describes the genre below.
I discovered Arnold while roving through the art galleries in Asheville North Carolina. When you’ve seen thousands of photographs and paintings of mountains and rivers a photograph of a barber chair in an abandoned prison catches and holds your eye.
Arnold emphasizes the ephemeral nature of his subject matter by using a technique called high dynamic range imaging in which several photographs of different exposures are combined to increase the level of detail and to increase the difference between light and dark regions of a photograph. He also prints his photographs on sheet metal, which brings out the highlights while breaking down the formal barriers between viewer and subject matter created by frame and matte.
He also captures the abstract geometry of a scene. A cubist fantasy in “The Matrix“, a photograph taken at a derelict lace factory in Scranton. Conch-like circles in “Beneath the UFO“, an image of a play structure beneath an empty school in St. Bernard Parish Louisiana. Parallel lines and intersections in “The Ruin of Harlot’s Hall“, a photo of an abandoned brothel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. A diving board looms like an abstract sculpture above an empty pool in “I’m Still Here,” a folded piece of origami among lines racing away into the distance.
Time and Nature are critical players in his photographs, and the photos remind the viewer like a Roman general’s slave whispering in his ear that regardless of our successes in life, we eventually fall to both. The motorcycle in “From the Earth” seems to burst out of the photograph while at the same time fights being swallowed by the earth. As the viewer we know which will ultimately win. In “Encroachment,” a photograph taken at the Majestic Hotel, a modern-looking and clean hotel room is under siege with the first tendrils of vines writhing across the carpet and up the walls. It’s only a matter of time before the straight lines of the room and bright white walls are softened and sullied by Time and Nature. Perhaps the finest example of this is arguably his most famous photograph, “The Final View,” an image of a plane’s cockpit taken in an airplane graveyard in Florida and the inspiration for a short film by Ron Howard, “When You Find Me.”
As a photographer who is somewhat new to the medium, having picked up a camera in 2006, Arnold is still exploring other subjects such as nature and portraiture. He even shoots weddings. These are technically very good and appealing in their own ways, but the images of abandonment are what haunt me, whether imagining the last song played on a broken piano, the final ride of a Ferris wheel or the last joy ride taken in an old car.