The beauty of decay and the discarded

Seattle-based photographic artist Chris Jordan’s project “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption” consists of pictures he made of piles of things that people have used and discarded. They’re of things that people don’t think of as inspiration of subjects of art: discard cell phones, tossed cigarette butts, junked cars and more.

I know he’s also trying to make a social statement but beauty can be found in things that may not inherently be considered beautiful. The trick is to look past our own preconceived notions and biases about what is beautiful and seek out the artistic possibilities of things most people may think of as unsightly.

Used egg shells are normally thrown away. Most people probably wouldn’t give them a second thought, but under the right light, an extreme close up of the broken pieces can look like a mosaic of different shades and tones of white.

Prisons aren’t usually considered an inspiration for art. Built in 1854, San Quentin is California’s oldest prison, and it looks it. Its high concrete walls are weathered by more than 150 years of sun, rain and sea air. But it’s just that faded and aged look that gives the prison’s ramparts a distinct texture and make them worth taking a look through an artist’s perspective.

We often give what’s under foot very little thought. What we step on or over is rarely worth of our attention. At most, all a crumbling sidewalk would generally prompt would be a call to the city for repairs. But combined with the long shadows of a late afternoon sun, the cracks in a concrete pathway can be turned into an artistic scene.

Patio furniture tends to get a lot of abuse. Exposed to the elements for extended periods of time, even plastic resin chairs can fade and turn brittle, and metal ones can rust. A few months ago I had a portrait to take at the subject’s home in Lodi. I arrived early and she wasn’t there yet, so I waited in the small front courtyard. A metal patio set displayed the orange-brown stains of oxidation and gave the chairs a picturesque pattern and texture.

Unless a car in a parking stall is something like a Ferrari or Lamborghini, it probably won’t garner much attention by most who walk by. And the ground beneath those cars would be thought of even less. Oil and gas can leak in varying amounts, staining the pavement below. Since oil and water repel each other, a rainy day can provide an interesting scene. Fallen rain drops bead up and separate, making miniature Minnesotan aerial views (Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes). A thin oily film floating on the surface of each droplet causes a rainbow of reflected color. Not so good for the environment, yet at the same time a haunting beauty of its own.

In the days of film (and well before Photoshop) my old photo instructor, the late Andy DeLucia, used to say that he wished there were some sort of filter one could place over the lens that would render phone and power lines invisible. There are many times that the lines get in the way of an otherwise bucolic scene. Like an ill-placed billboard, they can ruin the beauty of a landscape. Yet set against the right backdrop and under the right light, a web of power lines can become a powerful part of the composition.

The scenes of decay and the discarded can be as attractive as more conventionally aesthetic subjects. It just takes an adjustment in perception to see their beauty.

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