The 25 best of urban decay


I’ve got a guilty pleasure which I’d like to share with you guys – I love urban decay photography; I can spend hours on end browsing Flickr galleries tagged with Urban Decay… Brilliant stuff. I was talking about this particular style/subgenre of photography with my good friend Dave Feltenberger a few months ago, and he was enthused about collecting some of his favourite photographers and sites.

So, if you’re still left wondering what this whole ‘urban decay’ thing is all about… Here’s your chance to be flabberghasted!

Take it away Dave ‘Seinberg’ Feltenberger:

What is Urban Decay, and why bother with it?

Although it’s unfortunately becoming somewhat of a hip buzzword in certain areas of the photography community, Urban Decay remains a powerful subject matter for almost any medium. There’s something irresistible about these scenes, whether they’re urban, rural, industrial, or any human institution. Who lived there? What sequence of events led to the failure of this endeavor and to such a state of disrepair? The stories these places have—imagined or real—lead us to ask more questions and to be amazed by the smallest things. With age, decay, and a certain anonymity, something as simple as a reception desk at a hospital suddenly assumes gravity not matched by many feelings in our everyday experience. You wonder what the receptionist was like; the person’s feelings, ambitions, fears; finding a cheesy romance novel in the desk drawer blows your mind and you think, “Wow! Someone was actually here reading this!”

Well, so what? So somebody was sitting at a desk reading a book 50 years ago — why is a fleeting moment from an insignificant receptionist desk 50 years ago interesting? It seems like it shouldn’t matter, but these are feelings and thoughts that occur on encountering scenes of Urban Decay! What is it that makes Urban Decay so fascinating?

There’s simply the element of age, of course, just as pictures of New York in the roaring ’20s or Paris at the turn of the century are interesting. But Urban Decay is different: it has the age element and something else. I think at the heart of it is the jolt we get when we see human endeavors fail. Not in the way the Germans use the word schadenfreude—to delight in the failure or misfortune of others—but in fact the opposite of that. (I wonder: do the Germans have an antonym for schadenfreude?). In seeing Urban Decay, we have the gut understanding that we’re all in the same boat, and that everything ultimately decays. It takes constant effort to fend off the tendency of things to decay—but we know in our bones what our fate is, and the entropy of Urban Decay puts us face to face with it.

Whatever the feeling is for you, I hope the images collected below evoke some interesting feelings or if nothing else have a certain type of beauty that you enjoy. Oh, and the ordering is incidental; not meant to signify rank or importance; and similarly, there are surely other great examples out on the web, so this is to whet your appetite. Enjoy!

The 25 best of urban decay

1.) Ray Mortenson, Untitled

Urban Decay

Ray Mortenson is sort of an Old Master when it comes to Urban Decay. He doesn’t own a computer and still shoots film (never shot digital). The image below is in a show of 1980s Bronx Urban Decay photography he’s having at the Museum of the City of New York right now.

I love the image here: a bull’s eye saying, “Here. This is where it’s happening.” It’s perfect as a political statement, too.

2.) John Feckner, Broken Promises

John Feckner is probably more well-known than Mortenson, and he photographed the same subject matter: Bronx Urban Decay in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But while Mortenson quietly sat on most of his photos for years, Feckner made it a political issue and created images that struck a chord with more than just art school kids. And he’s still doing it.

Urban Decay

3.) Richard Nickel, Jr., Untitled

Okay, okay. I promise that not everyone will be from New York. But, uh, Richard Nickel Jr. is another New York photographer. There isn’t a lot of information available on him other than a short article from the New York Daily News, and his name is probably a pseudonym based on an early Urban Decay photographer named Richard Nickel, but Jr’s photography is certainly top-knotch. This photo is great in lots of ways; the framing is clearly meticulous: everything lines up perfectly. The light falling off to the left of the frame, the completely dark room ahead of us begging us to peek our head in. Beautiful.

Urban Decay

4.) Troy Pavia, Posts

I’m personally not the biggest fan of the other-worldly colors Troy uses his flash and a gel to make, as I think it can distract from his great photography that stands on its own, but no matter what way you look at it his photos are excellent. Others tend to love the colors so he’s a must on a list of great Urban Decay photos. Oh yeah, except he doesn’t shoot Urban scenes all that often—it’s usually some secluded town, highway stop, military base, or junk yard out in the California or Nevada desert—but Urban or Rural, the feeling that ties this subject matter together isn’t the dense population!

Urban Decay

5.) Mike O’Hara at, Sleeping

Full-disclosure on two fronts: first, Mike is also a New York photographer. And second, he’s also a close friend. His being a friend doesn’t change the fact that Mike’s a top-notch photographer, and incidentally one of the hardest working photographers I’ve encountered. Mike tends to be the brave one when shooting in (sometimes dangerous) abandoned spots, too—climbing fences, through asbestos-filled underground tunnels, slipping into small holes in windows…then yelling from the inside how to get in.

This image is titled perfectly: we see some machinery laying on top of rubble as if resting its head; the light is dim and fades off to the left. It’s literally like a hunk of metal is resting. Industrial decay at its finest.

Urban Decay

6.) Erik van Hannen, The Master Bedroom

Erik is a Flickr’r, although thankfully not a New Yorker; he’s a compatriot of The Photocritic and from the Netherlands. This photo was taken in an abandoned house somewhere in France. I love how the blinds are still up, blankets are on the bed, a lamp is on the side table, and there’s only a minor amount of chaos. It’s as if whoever was living there decided one day, “I’m leaving” and left everything behind. You can practically feel the presence of the prior inhabitants. I wonder if there’s a trashy romance novel next to the desk lamp? ;-)

Urban Decay

7.) Scott Haefner, The Thomspons

Scott is a photographer who shoots in California and some of his work is similar to Troy Pavia’s. This photo is a great example of leading the eye: the steps take us up a rickety path to a rickety porch where there’s a light waiting for us at the front door. Great stuff, and a good use of artificial lighting.

Urban Decay

8.) SolusPharus, Last Smile

Another aptly titled image, this shows windows that are seemingly peering out at the viewer from the rubble of its decaying walls.

Urban Decay

9.) Evan Helfrich, Untitled

Evan takes great abstract Urban Decay photography. Often you understand that it’s something decaying, but you can’t tell exactly what it is. And that’s the point: to grok it aesthetically, not intellectually.

Urban Decay

10.) “ste-peg“, The last second before darkness

“ste-peg” is from Italy and has some really great industrial decay in addition to more unique photos as in the image below. Since he’s in Italy, he has access to some incredible abandoned sites that don’t even exist in places like the US: ancient churches!

Urban Decay

11.) Andy Ilachinski, Untitled

Andy’s photography from his website is almost exclusively Black and White, and almost all of it is absolutely fantastic. His Decay photos tend to be simple compositions and high contrast, while expressing a loneliness that is very hard to capture.

Urban Decay

12.) Patrick Joust, Hardware

Patrick is a Baltimore, Maryland photographer who captures the moments of Baltimore’s often depressingly decaying urban environment. His Flickr stream tends to focus less on abandoned buildings and more on the areas of decay that are still in use. His photo here is an all-too-common sight in Baltimore: a deceptively lonely area that feels abandoned but is in fact actively inhabited by people.

Urban Decay

13.) Ben Borgman, Untitled

Ben doesn’t have much information about himself in his Flickr profile, but this snap of Winnie the Pooh forgotten next to a harsh concrete stairwell struck a chord. Pooh looks innocent, lonely, and concerned—or am I anthropomorphizing?

Urban Decay

14.) sisms, House Print

This image has great contrast and composition, showing the only remains of a house that was removed from the side of a building.

Urban Decay

15.) Hours of Darkness, Windows of the Past

Hours of Darkness is a good site for information about abandonments and documentary photography. This photo rises above most of the rest artistically, however, in its great night shot of moving clouds in front of an imposing building that’s now harmless and abandoned.

Urban Decay

16.) DetroitYES, Untitled

DetroitYES might need a little help with site design, but the writing is good and there are fascinating documentary photos of important decaying historic buildings related to American industrialism. Detroit is a case study in Urban Decay: once the center of the universe for the automobile industry and American industrial might, but now bleeding population (and tax-payer money!) out all pores while the memory of its greatness rapidly fades. This image is a perfect metaphor for what’s happening to the city.

Urban Decay

17.) Eric Gustafson

Eric’s site is filled with great photography (really—check it out!), including this one of an old truck that seems to still be holding its own against the forces of decay.

Urban Decay

18.) Eric Hart, Standing Figure

This was taken in a nearly-abandoned town in the middle of Pennsylvania in the US. The town is Centralia, and that steam is coming from an enormous underground coal fire that’s been burning for decades, not the subway. This is very good treatment of the subject.

Urban Decay

19.) Pascal Pollei, The final resting place!

Pascal has a whole Flickr set of Beelitz Heilstatten, an abandoned Soviet military hospital in what used to be East Berlin. This photo is a good disorienting composition of what must have been a disorienting place to be.

Urban Decay

20.) Andrew Qzmn, “Байки из Склепа” отдыхают

Thanks to my great girlfriend and her father for the translation of the title from Russian: Nothing Compared to Tales From the Crypt. And I agree – out in rural Russia, a beautiful abandoned house like this has to have a pretty bizarre story attached to it.

Urban Decay

21.) Ride My Pony, Sanvean

HDR can easily be overdone, and this teeters dangerously on that line, but the framing is exceptional and the content is also very interesting. Apparently the last person who used the computer wasn’t happy with his boss…

Urban Decay

22.) Sleepy City, MIG is filled with great adventures and photos. This is from an abandoned Soviet military base in Mongolia. How cool!

Urban Decay

23.) Abandoned Japanese Bowling Alley

I can’t read Japanese, so perhaps a reader can translate the site, but those aren’t cannon balls: they’re bowling balls in an abandoned bowling alley in Japan. Here I thought it was all neon lights, cell phones, and top of the line DSLRs…who knew Japan had Urban Decay?

Urban Decay

24.) Guillermo, Muro I

This is a good offset composition of what seems to be a door or shutter on a decaying building.

Urban Decay

25.) Timothy Neesam, Broadway

Last, but not least, some God Beams as they’re sometimes called. It’s magical to see this type of thing in an abandonment: it shows signs of life and light in an otherwise dreary atmosphere.

Urban Decay

A big thank you to Dave!

Dave has a photography exhibition of his own Urban Decay photography, titled Traces, in Rockville, Maryland (a Washington, DC suburb). Traces is a collection of images of institutional decay taken over the past several years along the East Coast of the US.

The exhibition is on the second floor at the Glenview Mansion Art Gallery; It started at the beginning of July and finishes on July 28th. Directions
to the Art Gallery can be found here – why not swing by and take a look if you’re in the area, or check out the exhibition online at Dave’s own website.

Finally, if you’re in a stalking mood anyway, why not check out Dave’s Flickr stream – and especially everything tagged ‘urban decay’, of course…

Got your own favourite urban decay photographs or photographers? Leave a comment with a link, I’d love to take a look!

A note on copyright

These images are all © their respective creators. They are being used in low resolution under the “criticism and [...] news reporting” portion of UK Fair Dealing law. If you like the photos above, please click on the links to see the full versions on the respective photographer’s sites. If you are the copyright owner to any of the above photos, and you prefer for your photographs not to be featured in such a manner, please send me an e-mail, and I will see to that they are removed.

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