The Rings of Saturn

Photographs of neglected landscapes.

This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.

— W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronomer. One day I would visit Saturn and walk along the immense plains of its icy rings, until I’d arrive back where I’d landed. I dreamt of the adventures I would have, the strange creatures I would encounter. Years later I can smile at the naïveté of my aspirations; yet somehow back then I’d intuited what I’ve learned since ? that our travels are mostly circular; there’s hardly ever a simple destination.

The photographs collected here, taken over a period of several years in Southern California, Nevada and Germany, are the result of some of my circular journeys; and it’s that circularity that connects them. These images were never intended to be a series — and they may not even belong together in that traditional sense. But after discovering the novels of W.G. Sebald — including The Rings of Saturn — I began to think in new ways about my apparently aimless wanderings, about the mental detours I take when I take pictures.

No matter how unintentional, any human intervention will leave a scar on the landscape. My photographs remind me of the stories I have imagined to justify those scars. But they also set me off on new directions, on journeys literal and intellectual.

A disused railroad line, looking out of place behind a gentrifying neighborhood in El Segundo, takes me back to the era when the aerospace industry was booming in Southern California, and that discovery in turn leads me to a housing complex for World War II veterans in Culver City. A walk through Berlin inspires the search for the home of a German refugee in the old eastern part of the city, and that journey then leads me to an abandoned kindergarten in Karl-Marx-Stadt — now Chemnitz, in post-unification Germany — where I can see traces of the photographs that once covered its walls.

Sebald’s writings, with their journeys to places with troubled histories, always make me melancholy. I felt a similar melancholy while exploring the places pictured here. They are all modest, the kind of places that usually seem invisible, that we don’t normally bother looking at. A Nevada town that has seen better days, an old railroad in L.A. that’s been paved over, a forgotten Soviet Army facility in the former East Germany — all are somehow marked by those who once inhabited them.

Jesús de Francisco, “The Rings of Saturn,” Places Journal, December 2010. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View

    12.27.2010 at 08:05

    Why is the sky is so inspiring?

  • Dani

    12.28.2010 at 15:58

    In your abstract on the homepage, the relationship between the subject and the author is ambiguous. Perhaps you should use "I" or "my" instead of just your name, as it initially appears as though someone else is writing about you. A small issue, but it causes some confusion.

  • Nancy Levinson

    12.28.2010 at 16:48


    I'm Places' editor, and I wrote the lead-in on the home page (standard procedure). Hope this clears up the confusion!


  • JP Ramirez

    01.01.2011 at 22:19

    I too have been fascinated by some of the ideas you touch on here. The industrial landscape is an interesting subject to study, given its historical significance and interaction with its surrounding natural environment. The opening photo says so much, great work!