Question: What creates a ghost town? Answer: Rapid population, rapid depopulation. Ghost towns are the residue of booms and busts, expectations of substantial monetary gain that for whatever reason failed to materialize. Wherever resources can be exploited and depleted, there you will find, at some point, ghost towns. In the United States we have ghost towns where the Gold Rush happened, where railroads or interstate highways suddenly diverted opportunities elsewhere.
The modern story of Africa is largely one of exploitation at the hands of the European powers, so it’s probably not surprising that they have ghost towns there, too. One of the most remarkable exists in Namibia. It’s called Kolmanskop; the Germans who created settlements to mine the diamonds there called it “Kolmanskuppe.”
The 1910s were a big decade for Kolmanskop: the Germans created a veritable German Gesellschaft there, complete with a hospital, a ballroom, a power station, a school, a theater, even an ice factory, no small luxury in balmy Namibia. World War I put an end to all that; the town crept along until 1954 before becoming abandoned for good.
At that point, the sands started to take over the town and those sands are transforming Kolmanskop into a haunting, beautiful artifact.
French photographer Romain Veillon has a jaw-dropping series of photographs of Kolmanskop called “Les Sables Du Temps”—“The Sands of Time.” The title is a cliché, of course, but something about the material demands a cliché of that sort. In addition to whatever fleeting political point they evoke, the images are really about man’s transience in the face of implacable nature.
Veillon is hardly the first artist to discover the aesthetic possibilities of Kolmanskop. Richard Stanley’s 1993 horror movie Dust Devil was partially filmed there, as well as parts of Ron Fricke’s non-narrative 2011 movie Samsara.