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Cheap Shot? Photographing Urban Ruins

29 September 2009 12 Comments

Vice Magazine is carrying a very interesting article about the way Detroit is being portrayed by the media in the midst of its economic catastrophe.

“Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters,” says writer Thomas Morton. “If you live on a block near one of the city’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, you can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.”

Accompanying the article is this photo, meant to illustrate photographers’ habit of literally cropping out prosperity from their shots.

From Vice: Hi, here I am in front of the landscape that photographers always use to illustrate the jarring contrast between poverty (as represented by a desolate alley) and wealth (as symbolized by the fancy GM skyscraper in the back). That white building on the left is one of Detroit’s most successful grinding plants. Photo by Joseph Patel

From Vice: Hi, here I am in front of the landscape that photographers always use to illustrate the jarring contrast between poverty (as represented by a desolate alley) and wealth (as symbolized by the fancy GM skyscraper in the back). That white building on the left is one of Detroit’s most successful grinding plants.

There is something about ruin that is attractive to photographers and I have noticed that many try to capture the beauty in destruction. But at what point do these images become exploitive?

Many photographers were criticized following the devastation of Katrina in New Orleans for taking “disaster vacations.” The criticism was they were taking whimsically beautiful photos of what was in fact a terrible event that was upending lives across the coast. The criticism in effect was that they weren’t journalistic, in the sense that they weren’t accurately documenting the horror of the situation.

I have seen this in the Rust Belt too. This summer I was working for an organization that published reports about foreclosure and we needed a shot of Braddock, Pennsylvania. I searched and searched online for a photo that would show what the community of Braddock was actually like but there was nothing.

The funny thing was, there was a whole web site devoted to Braddock-based photographers, but throughout the web site, there was barely a picture that gave any broad impression of how the community would look to a motorist or a pedestrian. Instead, the photos were largely similar: close-cropped, colorful rusted doors and dirty, old stuffed animals. No one interacting on the street. No well-kept gardens. No children on their way to school.

So my question is, what is photographers responsibility to communities across the Rust Belt and do they have one?

-AS

  • Special K

    This is a good discussion to have.

    We’ve had ruins-type photos on this blog, and I think they have their place. Some abandoned buildings, factories, etc. do have a certain haunting beauty. I think the best kind of these photos can show the sense of loss a place has suffered.

    That being said, it is important to distinguish between journalistic photos – which should be trying to accurately portray a community, its people, its physical landscape, etc. – and more artistic photos, which I would argue have a little more leeway.

    Any photogs care to weigh in here?

  • http://totalfurmanation.blogspot.com/ HHF

    I think I read something somewhere critiquing fashion shoots in places like Detroit. The criticism was very much in the same vein as what this post is saying.

  • http://www.stl-style.com Jeff

    This is such a great topic. Similar to the way the media loves to label Obama as “black” (even though he is equally white), Detroit is every bit as alive as it is dead.

    Perhaps Rust Wire can initiate a Living Streets photo showcase of everyday street scenes in our great old cities.

  • Sean Posey

    Living in Youngstown gives you a great insight into a topic like this. I think that people’s fascination with abandonment in places like Youngstown, Detroit, and Braddock, is the sheer enormity of that abandonment.

    When I was young, I once asked my father, “how did Youngstown survive the collapse of the steel industry?” His answer: “It didn’t.” What he was trying to tell me was that the Youngstown he knew was completely gone. All the old landmarks had been destroyed or had been abandoned: The Jenny Blast Furnace, the steel mills, Idora Park, Mckelvey’s, Livingston’s, The State Theater, The Warner Theater, The Colonial House, and on, and on, and on. Imagine if in the next few decades New York lost Wall Street, The Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building, Time Square, and more. That’s what happened to Youngstown. My fascination with shooting the ruins of the old Youngstown is rooted in trying to understand what once was. I’m sure those who shoot cities like Detroit are trying to understand the same thing. Photography is my way of coping with a city that was destroyed. Only through coming to grips with what happened to places like this, can we begin to understand how they might be reborn.

  • schmange

    I agree with you, Sean. The way people talk about Youngstown and using the word “dead,” I just don’t think it’s accurate. Living there, I realized there’s a lot about that town that has never changed. To me, it’s a story of endurance.

    And I think you’re right that, as young people growing up in these places, we need to process this kind of unsettling imagery. And photography is a good medium for that.

    I think it would be interesting if the people that were intent on documenting this transformation (deindustrialization) made an effort to capture the “alive” side of life in these cities as well as the dead, and I’m speaking for myself as well as everyone else.

    What I think would be cool is to capture the way life continues in these communities next to these massive, deteriorating, industrial icons. Because it does. That’s the story of any of these cities: endurance. There’s still community and family and charity along with all the despair, and poverty and blight.

    I guess, we just need to be careful to present a balanced view.

    Or maybe you’re right Kate, there is a difference between journalism and art and each has its place. Because we’ve definitely had some very beautiful shots of ruin on this blog.

  • Damian

    Leave the pics of new or refurbished buildings to marketers and p.r. types. Believe you me, they will show you what they want you to see. If the city is run down, then that’s the way a journalist should portray it. Facing reality and speaking the truth is a strength, not a weakness.

  • ReedyfromtheYo

    I agree with this discussion. When Youngstown started to receive a large influx of attention, I grew somewhat upset. Why? Because the attention Youngstown started to receive went from the thread of charity to just negative attention. Reporters were no longer discussing the 2010 plan, but the problems we had, the economy, calling Youngstown at one point the worst city to live in… you name it. It was so ridiculous at one point, I compared Youngstown to becoming the “Britney Spears” of the media. Everyone wanted to talk about how screwed up the city was and it was coming from everywhere.

    A perfect example- when boxer Kelly Pavlik started to make waves in the professional circuit, leading to his huge fight against Jermain Taylor- every single camera shot of him was in front of an abandoned mill, building, anything that represented blight. Anyone watching this must have thought he trained in a ghost town, with tumbleweeds drifting by and dodging bullets from the outlaws. It was as if the director of pre-fight special said, “Kelly, leave your nice house here in Youngstown and instead of running through Mill Creek park like your normal routine- run in front of the abandoned mill!!!” (it’s exactly what they did)

    But as Sean said, it’s in the eye of the beholder. No one who grew up in the city, who remembers department stores, businesses, the mills, the culture, would ever say Youngstown is doing well. Yes it is bad in some spots, but there are positive things that occur every day. Those are the people to focus on- not to make the situation seem like something it’s not- it’s still bad here. But there are people trying to make it better, and if journalists focus on those people perhaps they will inspire others to join in. They might help make a small one person attempt at improving a city street into a city wide project.
    I think the difference is when is a photograph done for awareness- to help the situation, i.e. look at how bad it is here- please help, and when it is done without a cause geared towards helping the situation. (because they’ll get noticed, or perhaps it’s almost a trend now??)

    My favorite quote “Say and do something positive that will help the situation, it doesn’t take any brains to complain.”-Robert A. Cook
    To make a city great again- you need people back and you must help those who are left in it. To do this- you have to entice people to come back and to help out as well- therein lies the issue.. How?

  • http://nickf84.blogspot.com Nick

    This post brings up a good point. Although I do have a strange fascination with abandon places, I often wander what a 360 degree shot would look like in some of these pictures that you see in the news and urban exploring sites. Are the places really as bad as the pictures make them out to be? It would be nice to see some perspective.

  • http://msn charlie no face

    you think you got it bad , try iiving in amsterdam ny, the former “carpet city” since the sanfords and bigelows pulled out we have a mini-detroit on our hands…the entire city was systematically destroyed by federal housing projects, highway construction(nys thruway)and last but not least, “urban renewal”. they plopped a surburban type mall right in the middle of an urban street pattern and completely messed things up. the former pizza hut is now an evangelical church, the entire downtown is like a ghost town, just crumbling buildings, and memories! polish weekends are great for us, many thanks to you all in advance, stosh zehsnick

  • http://msn charlie no face

    when in amsterdam please visit the remains of the sanford stud farm, the former 1000 acre farm is now reduced to 1 acre. some key barn structures remain and are being stabilized for the futures. the area is a complete commercial wasteland with wallmart amd whatnot consuming all the former farm. sanfordstudfarm………………………………

  • http://msn charlie no face

    hello again from old amsterdam….great strides at sanford stud*****keep it up!!!!!

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