“I don’t know what is it about urban decay that attracts us as photographers,” writes the Austin, Texas-based photographer J. Dennis Thomas in his 2013 book Urban and Rural Decay Photography: How to Capture the Beauty in the Blight. He continues thoughtfully:
Maybe it just reminds us of our own mortality and our fleeting time on this planet. Maybe it’s just the simple beauty we as photographers can dig out of the ugliness of a collapsing and deteriorating structure…One of the things that always struck me is that I wanted to know the stories about the people that inhabited or worked in these places. I wanted to know why they left behind the things that they did and what drove them away. Photographing what is left gives us a connection to people whose stories we may never know, but that we can try to illustrate by using images.
This disintegration and dilapidation – of structures in our cities and suburbs and countryside – that is such a popular subject in photography happens to be a major theme running across the work of self-taught British painter Simon Hopkinson. Simon, who lives in Exeter, grew up in Yorkshire and began taking photographs of the surrounding countryside when he was 12. He moved to cityscapes in his teens. Later, while attending university in Bristol, he started exploring “the less cherished spots” of the city. Photos became the basis for his first acrylic paintings.
“It sounds egocentric perhaps,” says the artist, “but the thing that inspired me to paint was a fascination with certain types of scenery, rather than an interest in other peoples’ artwork. As I got older, I realised one or two other artists had been in the same territory before me, and I also became more aware of, and interested in, people from my own zeitgeist, but I worry that by mentioning names I could come over as derivative. When I first took urban decay photographs in my mid teens, back in the early eighties, I was listening to a lot of music – now categorised as post-punk – and I think this definitely influenced my choice of subject matter.”
In addition to post-punk, Simon sees a connection – not a very close or deep one though – between his paintings and the work of English novelist James Graham Ballard (1930-2009) known for his bleak descriptions of man-made modern landscapes (High-Rise, The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World).
Simon’s paintings expose a Britain that is quite unlike that sparkling kingdom of travel and tourism guides and brochures. He shows old cemeteries, abandoned factories, dirty underpasses. Rust and rot are all over the place. So is loneliness and the sense that something valuable has been lost. But all the cold, crumbling and vanishing constructions are depicted with great care and attentiveness.
“My main message would be that beauty is much wider than conventionally accepted – arguably universal – and not something confined to elegant shapes or particular types of subject,” continues Simon. “I focus on unloved urban scenery to show its beautiful side, as well as for its social relevance. My other message, especially of late, might be called political: it seems the UK is increasingly dystopian, and I try to combine scenery with a sense of contemporary malaise.” This is especially evident in the paintings of flames and flags that spell the eruption of a stubborn nationalism unwilling to entertain whoever or whatever is different and foreign.
Images used with permission.