In search of the gothic

I noticed that many of my pictures seemed to point in a certain direction, as if trying to say the same thing but in different ways. If I was to name that direction I would use the word ‘gothic’ as a shorthand, although I realise that the term ‘gothic’ comes with a lot of pre-supposition.

Dakotan Doll, © Tony Cearns

I have always been drawn to the Gothic and French Symbolism. Notwithstanding the perils of historical interpretation that reading through a gothic lens might admit, I have been drawn to Edgar Allen Poe, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro, Margaret Attwood. My popular musical tastes have featured Neil Young, Drive-By Truckers, Kings of Leon, Black Crowes.

Photographically, I much admire Atget, Walker Evans, William Mortenson, Kertész, Bill Brandt, Cartier-Bresson and, of course, the ante-bellum architectural photographs of Clarence Laughlin. I would argue that all of these photographers extolled a gothic disposition. Walker Evans is often described as a ‘straight’ photographer (whatever that means), but one only has to look at his Billboard pictures to get a sense of the gothic. For example,

Houses and Billboards, Atlanta 1936, © Walker Evans

And so, I have found in my own photography a predilection for the abandoned, the dispossessed or disenfranchised, the contrarian view, cemeteries and decay, a pointing towards the ‘third world of photography’, as Laughlin put it, a realm beyond documentation looking beyond an object’s physical status and commonplace meaning to reveal the symbolic suggestiveness of objects.

Elegy for the Old South – 1981 – © Clarence Laughlin

This style has emerged of its own accord, somehow, and only on reflection after several years have I come to recognise it and make sense of it in terms of how I see.

Abandoned farm, North Dakota, 2016 © Tony Cearns

Letting a style emerge organically from a lifetime of photography has afforded me an opportunity for self-discovery, surely one of the great things about photography? As Wynn Bullock once wrote: ‘What is important is not what you think about (objects), but how they enlarge you.’ Artificially imposing a stamp on my work might have led to some earlier success, but who’s counting? Not me. Short-term gains, perhaps, but what long-term pains?

A selection of some of my pictures of a gothic ilk:


  1. Reply
    Knut Skjærven Oct 16, 2023

    Style is what emerges when you are busy doing other things :-).

    Thanks for the article. Great read.

    All the best from over here :-).


    • Reply
      Sidewayseye Oct 16, 2023

      Indeed, Knut. It works silently. Best wishes.

  2. Reply
    Bill Barnes Oct 17, 2023

    Thank you Tony, what a wonderful post, and – as ever – so much to think about. It is also nice to see a picture of yours that has stayed with me since I first saw it, it has two (three if you enlarge the image) ionic columns on the right hand side. I’m always left wondering what building the columns are part of, but please don’t tell me, sometimes not knowing can be more thrilling than knowing.

    • Reply
      Sidewayseye Oct 18, 2023

      Thanks Bill!

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