Updated: Oct 30, 2018
This week is a guest post St. Louis-based photographer Michael Matney. Mike specializes in dog portrait photography working with local shelters, but he also does a fair bit of UrbanX-ing and documenting the history of St. Louis, making him a perfect guest contributor for this week’s photo challenge. He’s leading a Kelby Photowalk in St. Louis on October 6, 2018. Join him!
This week, the theme is to:
What does it mean to photograph history?
For me it means photographing the urban decay of St. Louis.
What was once one of the largest cities in the nation has declined in population over the decades, leaving large swaths of neglected and derelict buildings. In some neighborhoods an abandoned building sits in-between occupied homes.
As a photographer I find the decay fascinating yet at the same time very sad. Most people drive by these old buildings and see nothing but an eye sore. I see that these derelict places were once someone's home, or the building where they worked.
How do I capture this? To tell the story of the people who lived and worked in them so they aren't forgotten?
In some instances, it appears that the people just up and walked out, a Mary Celeste in an urban ocean.
Was that stuffed bear some child's beloved toy? Who are the people in the forgotten photo album lying on the floor?
Sometimes it feels I am intruding when I walk into an abandoned home and see the remnants of someone else's life. I know the people are gone but their presence still occupies the space. What made them leave these items that must have meant something to them at one time?
Without humans living and working in them these buildings are being reclaimed by nature. In some cases, man is tearing them down to build something new in its place. The factory floor where machines hummed with life are now nothing but rust and rot. A small tree is sprouting out of the concrete floor. The once bustling mall concourse that is now silent and empty.
These scenes are haunting to many, especially in places that they have a history with. The challenge is how to tell the story of a place in a respectful way without sensationalizing what I am shooting.
We are not only photographers, but historians whether we realize it or not.
When photographing history, look beyond the obvious.
Look around your neighborhood, your town, or the route you drive to work every day. How much has it changed over the years? Look at old photos from your childhood. It can be fun and somewhat scary to realize just how different things are.
Photographing history might mean taking photos of life right now - photos others will look back on. Stop to take a few photos of the things you drive by every day. These places may not be there tomorrow.
Recently in the small town I live in, a grain silo that has stood for almost a century was torn down to make way for an urgent care center. Fortunately over the years I have taken quite a few photos of it. Now, the only way to know it ever stood there is through people’s memories -- and the photos.
This week, take a walk through your downtown and document some of the architecture and people who work there. Look for the small details on buildings that most people tend to overlook as they go about their daily routine. Capture the local farmers market that happens on the weekend, or a local festival.
Capture the stories big and small that are happening around you. Preserve these moments for future generations to look back on. Challenge yourself to document not only the big but also the small things that are part of the daily routine. Find the elements that are part of people’s lives even if they don’t realize it at the time.
Remember, we are not only photographers, but also historians. We have it in ourselves to tell a story for future generations.
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Just a guy living and working in the metro east area of St. Louis, or as some might call it: Illinois. Spent 20 years in the Air Force and am now retired. I am an avid photographer and try to get out as much as I can to take photos.
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