The Uncanny Melancholy of Empty Photographs

A supermarket in Los Angeles, California, on March 6, 2020. Images of this kind are also common in global social media feeds. This scarcity is unheard of for most first-world 21st-century consumers. Etienne Laurent/EPA

It’s not just empty.

Images of empty public places – the streets of Ginza th, the soccer stadiums th, the canals of Venice, and lone travelers in buses, trains, and trams wearing masks – bring to mind apocalyptic movies and the end times.

Our news feeds are filled with photos of vacant public spaces, which document our response to the worldwide pandemic.

These pictures may depict a terrifying situation, but we are drawn to the strange and otherworldly scenes. These pictures make us pause, look, and linger to try and understand what the places without people say.

Images of a world without us reveal a collective fascination with the apocalypse or perhaps extinction.

On March 15, 2020, a priest in Cologne Cathedral (Germany) where the mass was canceled. The priest is the sole observer in this image, which mirrors the trope of a lone traveler in a landscape. Marius Becker/DPA

Instagram’s Beautiful Places has 1.2 million subscribers. These photos show abandoned buildings or those that are overgrown by weeds.

When we enjoy the sights of decaying architecture or dilapidation, this is “ruin Porn.”

The appeal is in a scene that could be uncomfortable (or alienating or isolated) but does not. The viewer is viewing a scene from a distance, but it’s a representation.

The London Underground on March 16, 2020, appears to stretch forever. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Another definition of ruin porn is to gain pleasure from another’s failure. This can be seen in these architectural ruins.

As outsiders with a compromised moral code, we paint a picture that is aesthetically pleasing of someone else’s decline and ignore the factors contributing to the crisis.

Even though they may be about the coronavirus, images on our news feeds offer similar visuals. These images are a delight to look at, as they fall into the tropes associated with the photographic picturesque.

The M7 motorway was empty in Hungary on March 14, 2020. A posthuman dystopian vision of the world without humans. Gyorgy Varga/Hungary out/EPA

We can see far into the distance, with a wide range of visual perspectives. We feel like we are the only ones in the landscape.

Why are photographs of our absence so captivating?

During the early days of photography, any moving object would have been rendered invisible. Architecture (or even a dead body) made for the perfect still image. Take Daguerre’s 1839 photo of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. It is a busy city street.

Photographed in 1839, Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre.

This photograph shows an empty street, except for two people who stood still enough to capture the scene by using the required exposure time.

Photos have always offered us a different perspective on the world.

Sebastien Courdji/EPA The streets of France were photographed again empty, here in Lille, on March 17, 2020. Sebastien Courdji/EPA

Candida Höfer, a contemporary fine art photographer, has built a career photographing large, empty spaces such as public libraries, museums, and theatres. Thomas Struth’s bare street photos make German cities appear like ghost towns.

These artists have a fascination for photographing architecture without human subjects.

Houhai Bar Street, Beijing, China. February 20, 2020. Once a place of bright lights and vibrant nightlife, it is now dark, almost deserted. Wu Hong/EPA

The fascination with abandoned and deserted spaces may be due to what Anthony Vidler, an architectural historian, called “uncanny architecture.” He said that abandoned and vacant places make familiar spaces unfamiliar.

Vidler’s estrangement from the space is based on visual representation, such as photography.

These photos of empty public places capture a departure from our everyday life and instead visualize an uncanniness, an alternate reality devoid of our presence.

It would be sinister, troubling, suspicious, strange. Better described as “dread,” its power comes from its inexplicability and sense of lurking unease rather than any source of terror that can be clearly defined.

The collective imagination captures the world as it is without us while we are confined to our homes. We are now experiencing the feeling of being alone and haunted in public places.

We find a few isolated figures in images that we would expect to be populated by hundreds or even thousands of people. The camera is the only observer.

A classroom with torn papers on the parapet in Sanaa (Yemen), March 15, 2020. Yahya Arhab/EPA

The emotional response to a picture of urban life devoid of its inhabitants is a mix of emotions: alienation, sadness, and estrangement.

In his 1913 painting The Melancholy Of A Beautiful Day, the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico captures this with an ominous character standing alone in a town street. His shadow and a Roman monument in the distance are all that can be seen.

De Chirico’s painting, made over a hundred years ago, is surprisingly similar to the photos we see in the news. It is a great example of surrealism’s fascination with dream states and psychological realities.


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