Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

The Art of Urban and Rural Exploration

by Eva Boynton on February 2, 2016

A winding staircase in an abandoned building shows how the art of urban exploration makes you see things differently (image © Christian Richter).

The spiraling perspective of an abandoned staircase begs the question:
Who walked up these stairs?
© Christian Richter

See Things Differently, See Beauty in Decay

While perusing the library of my travel photos, I found a surprising result. Faces and landscapes were few and far between. Crumbling brick, rusted door knobs, cracked walls, paint discoloration, and patterns of flaking exteriors took center stage. Why?

Because I see things differently. Not only do deserted buildings and decaying walls provide powerful settings for photography, but they are themselves, a form of art.

I see beauty in decay, stories and legend in the abandoned, rejuvenation in the old, and endurance for the decrepit. I was an urban explorer before I knew urban exploration, or urbex, existed. I love to document the dilapidated and decrepit. Take a look. See its beauty. See things differently.

Exterior wall with stained blue patterns, showing how the art of urban exploration makes you see things differently. (image © Eva Boynton)

With dark and emphatic strokes, Nature paints eyebrows around window eyes.
© Eva Boynton

Art Lessons

Found among the debris of disregarded buildings is the great professor of color theory. The mix of colors, patterns, and shapes that form from wear and tear provide art lessons of the natural kind. They inform the palette of painters and delight the eye of those who appreciate art.

A wall's paint discolored by urban decay, showing how urban exploration can make you see things differently. (image © Eva Boynton)

The dynamic palette of urban decay
© Eva Boynton

Urban exploration develops an eye for the aesthetics of decay. Through the camera lens, photographers learn to frame exquisite landscapes of colors, textures, and patterns. They snap their pictures and document the eroding walls and deteriorating doors.

An eroding wall exposing brick and blues, pinks and yellows, demonstrating how urban exploration makes you see things differently. (image © Eva Boynton).

Flaking paint and exposed brick create the color tones in this wallscape.
© Eva Boynton

For the photographer, the lessons in art go beyond color studies to recognizing a remarkable backdrop. They teach skills in perspective—when to go in close on the details and when to pull back to think about the entire composition.

A portrait of a woman standing in front of a decaying wall, showing how the art of urban exploration makes you see things differently. (image © Eva Boynton).

An effective juxtaposition—decaying walls and a young woman looking forward to a long life
© Eva Boynton

Nature’s Paintbrush

Nature paints with living colors of moss, ivy, and oxidation. Environmental factors take effect over time, exposing the raw layers of what lies beneath. Humidity causes discoloration and stained patterns, while rain flakes the walls. These are the unlikely mediums of nature’s paintbrush that create the aesthetics relished by urban and rural explorers alike.

Green moss growing on a Mayan wall in Quintana Roo, Mexico, is an artwork of decay that makes you see things differently. (image © Eva Boynton)

Coming in close on a wall in the Mayan jungle of Quintana Roo, Mexico,
reveals a mix of moss and paint.
© Eva Boynton

Nature alters architecture, interacting with what humans have built. She animates a dormant surface, producing wonderfully erratic and random displays of color, texture and pattern. These spectacular shows of decay are of the moment and are the prize of urban and rural explorers.

A wall and door with dynamic colors, showing the effect of decay gives an opportunity to see things differently. (image © Eva Boynton).

Cracks and crackles of ocean indigo and rusty reds on this Mexican wall
frame a new door that is itself already starting to decay. 
© Eva Boynton

Once Nature starts to take over, every moment counts. The process is a constant evolution, one in which change comes from both decomposition and the sprouting of new plant life. Standing in front of a scene of urban decay is like watching a live performance—a year, a month, or even a day later, the mutations create a new look.

A deserted hotel room in Europe with plants growing over the bed, illustrating how photographers engaged in urban exploration make you see things differently. (image © Christian Richter).

A deserted hotel room in Europe provides a bed for new growth.
© Christian Richter

Urban and rural exploration teaches how to see beauty in the most unlikely of subjects. Decaying walls and buildings and beds, however, are more than an artistic opportunity or nature’s playground. They also tell powerful stories.

Stories in the Abandoned

Explorers of all types need imagination and courage for their journeys. Urban exploration is no different. Although rotten floors and unstable ceilings can be a challenging setting, abandoned buildings produce unique photographic stories.

Students once studied in these very desks. Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre safeguard the memory with a camera.

A deserted classroom in Europe, captured by a photographer doing urban exploration, makes you see things differently. (image © Christian Richter).

What do you think happened on the day this classroom was abandoned?
© Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Photos of Detroit’s deserted theaters and dust-caked hotels preserve a story of time passing—a story of people coming and going, of an empire rising and fading away.

An abandoned room of a hotel apartment in Detroit, captured by a photographer engaged in urban exploration who wants you to see things differently. (image © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

The Lee Plaza hotel, completed in Detroit in 1929, was a
production of the “construction frenzy” era. 
©Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Like the rings of a tree, you can count the layers of dust or paint to imagine the history that the walls have witnessed over the years. Perhaps a family celebrated their success here by checking into this 1920s luxury suite. Maybe they invited a pianist to serenade them as they ate a decadent meal. Were they part of the social segregation that caused the abandonment of many buildings in the city?

Abandoned buildings are a mausoleum of sorts, where stories of the past are buried. When photographs from urban explorers preserve these relics, they turn the rotting past into a monument of the present.

An abandoned library in Europe, captured by a photographer engaged in urban exploration who wants you to see things differently. (image © Christian Richter)

What stories can this European library tell?
Who was the last person to sit in the green chair?
© Christian Richter

The ruins become the roots of a present-day place, the survivors, heritage sites in their own right. They evoke eerie, nostalgic emotions, and they house awe-inspiring stories of heroic destruction.

Oh, I See Decay Differently

Rust may be a sign of disuse and chipped paint a sign of failure to “keep up appearances,” but the art of decay revealed in my urban and rural exploration makes me see things differently. With fresh and creative eyes, I see beauty and inspiration in the old, lost, disregarded, and abandoned. What do you see?

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

Thank you Christian Richter  and Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre for sharing your beautiful photography.


6 thoughts on “The Art of Urban and Rural Exploration

  1. Eva- you inspire me to do more textile art pieces- I have a visceral reaction to your work. Thank you for seeing the beauty and timeless persistence of Mother Nature.
    Katie F.

    • Hi Katie,
      Thank you for your comment. I am very happy to hear my article inspired your artistic explorations. I would love to see one of your textile pieces!

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