In my more meditative moods, I find myself inexorably drawn to photographs of entropy, and vistas that clearly show the ravages of time.
Perhaps it started when I was very young, and one of the most interesting road trips my family took was one to an old abandoned town. I don’t remember much of it, just that I found it endlessly fascinating to explore and look around at the old “ghost” buildings. Old windows, thicker at the bottom than at the top, showed the age and resilience of hand-crafted homes, ignored by looters. The relics of a forgotten people and a forgotten age resonated with me, by all accounts an extraordinarily somber and introspective child.
Some people find these things depressing. Some of the photos from this fascinating photo diary of a decaying Detroit can certainly be on the more gloomy side, if one is inclined to think along those lines. This collection of photographs from a local ghost town (Eureka, UT) might be empty at first glance, but then, there are stories to be told there. These artifacts of a not-so-long-ago culture aren’t just spawned ex nihilo, they are evidence that people lived, loved and dreamed. I find that curiously uplifting and hopeful, not depressing. People did the best with what they had and then moved on. Time isn’t an enemy, it’s just part of life.
Perhaps that’s the key for me. I don’t imagine the pain and the loss involved in the inevitable mortality of man and the works of man’s hands, I consider the good times. I look at the things that get left behind and wonder why they weren’t taken along. I wonder why that building was built, and why the road bends over there. It’s an occasion to exercise my imagination and whimsy, taking a mental journey to those days when a home was new and a family moved in in excitement, or a theater proudly enticed the town to a evening of entertainment. I imagine the music that once echoed in a dance hall, or the smells that filled a diner. I listen for the whispers of ghosts, telling stories of their glory days and remembering their loved ones, happy with how they lived, not mourning that they are no longer doing so.
Mortality for me is a curious blend of living in the moment, wistfully remembering and honoring the past, and wishfully thinking ahead. I believe that we need to understand as much of the full spectrum of time as possible, that the past has a great deal to teach the present, and that looking ahead means little without understanding where we’ve been and where we are.
There’s also a curious fascination I have with just how time and nature ravage the things we so often erect in hubris, monuments to our own ego. It’s almost like, as a species, we spit in the face of reality and try to bend nature to our whim, but no matter how much we believe we are masters of all we survey, we always lose in the long run. Nature operates on a geological time scale, and we’re just a blip in the calendar. It breaks us and grinds us down in very interesting ways, but somehow, we fight the good fight anyway.
Disasters are also fascinating. From the very-close-to-home, very real loss of a cherished historical building like the Provo Tabernacle to the vast fictional spread of dystopic storytelling in various media, I am deeply interested in how time and entropy leave their mark. Sometimes we bring destruction on ourselves, sometimes it just happens, sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow, but in the end, everything falls apart.
I find it fascinating to see how other people lived and what they prioritized. There are usually lessons to be learned.
This is why I love looking through photographs of ancient Greece or the not-quite-so-ancient Scotland. It’s why I love taking photographs of old things and even just nature and how it falls apart. A newly built city, all shining glass and metal, bling and bluster, neon and noise… it’s just not very interesting. It’s complex and intricate, yes, but it’s… sterile. It’s not “lived in” or loved, it’s just a facade. (In a nutshell, the Millennium Falcon is far more interesting than Queen Amidala’s mirror ship.) It can even be creepy, as Mirror’s Edge (and plenty of other fiction) tries to illustrate. Clean just doesn’t stay clean on a large scale without some extraordinary statist efforts. This also echoes the Uncanny Valley effect; real people have many, many small flaws that fabricated people just don’t have, from quirks of movement to freckles, wrinkles and asymmetry. Our faces show the effects of time in quirky ways, and it’s fiendishly hard to fake that.
This is also very fertile ground for storytelling and even game narrative. There’s a huge amount of story that can be hinted at by crafting worlds that look lived in rather than pristine. After all, here in the Real World, we don’t live in a world that started with our birth, we’re just one player on an aged stage that existed long before us and will go on long after we’re gone. There’s a strong sense of place and presence to be found in sifting through the evidences of the past.
Especially if they are falling apart.