Finding beauty in the trash

A story I wrote for CNN. 

In Steven Duede’s compost bin, beauty exists side by side with decay. Bright-pink roses with black-rimmed petals lay next to brown-splotched bananas and cracked eggshells.

Duede, a photographer based in Boston, first took a picture of his compost bin two and a half years ago. Now, his series “Evanescence” has grown to 40 images — all showcasing close-up shots of his backyard scraps.

The project began without any lofty ambition. Duede was simply struck by the “beautiful and very chaotic” scene in his bin and grabbed his camera.

“But as I began to view more and more images, I began to get a sense of this theme kind of growing,” he said. “You can look at beautiful items up against things that are decaying or breaking away or losing their beauty, and it gives you something that’s a bit more thought-provoking about our own transitory state of being.”

Duede is used to transition. He spent years working as a painter and mixed-media artist before shifting to photography. The compost images, with their rich colors and varied textures, have the look and feel of a still-life painting.

“These images … have a lot of elements I was toying with when I was a painter,” he said. “When this project began, I felt a real connection to the career that I had for some 20 years previous.”

“Evanescence” also expanded on themes of decay and beauty that are present in Duede’s other works. In his recent “1-70 Series,” Duede captured crumbling service stations along Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City. Just like “Evanescence,” the series features the beauty of the things we toss away.

“I’m so incredibly drawn to those things — things that formerly had function that are now in a state of degraded transition,” he said.

Even after years of shooting, Duede said he is still surprised and inspired by the project. He rarely composes the images, instead letting the weather and the day’s waste determine the shots.

“It’s constantly changing,” he said. “My neighbors also use the compost bin, so I don’t always know what I’m going to find. So any given day I can find flora or I’ll find the most disgusting rotting banana.”

Duede named the series “Evanescence” to reflect the physical and thematic elements of the images. The objects in the compost bin break down into soil and vapor, creating a cycle of growth, decay and renewal that mirrors the human experience of aging and renewal.

Of course, working with compost doesn’t always involve such lofty ideas — Duede had to deal with a face full of flies first.

“Sometimes it’s really gross,” he said.

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