Are We Unfairly Stigmatizing Rust Belt Photography?

Courtesy of Sean Posey

Many people are not shy in expressing disdain for the kind of photography that has been branded as “ruin porn.” Though I have to say—as a Clevelander inundated with vacancy to the point one becomes forced to create a new perception of decay else shrink into a corner — I don’t get too moved by the critiques.


Well, let’s get the name thing out of the way first, because if the practice of photographing industrial and urban ruins was simply Ruin Photography as opposed to Ruin Porn then much of the debate wouldn’t exist. But it does. And we have the word “porn” to thank for it.

The power of language.

Because even before you get to analyze the practice of ruin photography on its own merit, you got the connotations of porn filmed over your judgment. And so the act of filming ruins becomes the act of filming filth, meaning the resultant audience is less interested in artistic quality than they are titillation. After all, it’s pornographic. It says so right in the name.

Framing, it’s an old trick, used by preschoolers and politicians alike, as the name “tattle-tale” sticks no less than “flip-flopper.” Framing can destroy in that sense, even in art. Just look at that period in the country’s history when being called a “communist” meant your films were socially perverse.

But in the end, framing on its own won’t hold up. And so evolve reasons to give the “porn” label some weight, if only to convince folks that ruin art is light, cheap, voyeuristic: a still shot of Hoarders mixed with Intervention, or for that matter all things reveling in America’s happiness with another’s pain.

Hoarder porn? Courtesy of A & E

One critique is journalistic laziness — Out of towner flies into Detroit and captures yet another over-dramatic shot of Detroit’s Michigan Central Depot before bolting. There is validity to this argument, but in and of itself it doesn’t disqualify the potential of the medium. After all, isn’t that on the schmuckiness of the artist instead of on the quality of the genre?

Another common critique centers on the fact there are no people in ruin porn shots. For such critics, it’s tasteless to document the ruins of cities without showcasing the people who live beside the decay. One critic writes:

“The one thing they [ruin photos] have in common no matter who has taken them is that there are never any people in them. And to me, that points to the problem. There are no people interacting with the ruins.”

Again, I don’t get it. Ruin porn is a thread of landscape photography. And I don’t remember Ansel Adams getting the business because his epic landscape shots didn’t have backpackers milling about. Of course critics will contend that traditional landscape shots aren’t intertwined with a city’s (and thus a people’s) demise, which brings us to the next most common critique: ruin porn sensationalizes the poor.

For example, in this post the author critiques German photographer Christian Burkert‘s series of photos titled “Last Exit Detroit” this way:

“What’s problematic about this approach [ruin porn] is that it does little but gawk at the cities and people in distress. In other words, it actually contributes to the problem by fueling the notion that Detroit (and depressed cities like it) are beyond help.”

Two things here: First, I am on the record saying that ruin porn outs the conditions of poverty, showing—like Jacob Riis’ seminal work did back in 1890—not so much how the other half lives, but what the other half lives with. Lord knows this is necessary. Plight and blight is to the eyes like one’s hand is to fire: instinctually distanced (See Mitt Romney’s latest quote about not being concerned about the “very poor”). The pause to reflect what has happened to us is needed here. Show it. Debate it. Shutting it down under the auspices of porn actually makes the living images dirtier than they are.

Second—and this speaks to the ruin porn critique in general—there is something of an amorphous/ambiguousness nature to the attacks that tells the creator and supporter of the medium that: you can’t win for losing.

For example, below is one of the photos from Burkert’s series, and there are some like it.

Here is another from the series, and there are many more like it.

Yeah, I don’t get it either. Far from “gawking” or “fueling” the notion that Detroit is beyond help, you know what I see? The aesthetic of a world I live in every day. Yes America, in the Rust Belt there is rust and wear and black people attempting to fix what’s broke. It’s not new here. Deal.

And about that indefinable nature of the attack, well, it is working. Note the frustration and confusion in Matthew Christopher’s great post Confessions Of A Ruin Pornographer: A Lurid Tale of Art, Double Standards, and Decay:

“The nebulous nature of the term and its use as an insult means that it can be employed without much consequence and is frustratingly difficult to rebut…Because the core definition is ill-defined and constantly shifting, there is no way to adequately defend yourself: whatever it is that you’re doing, you should be doing something else, but in the meanwhile your work bears the sleazy stigma of comparison to that of such esteemed photographers as those found in Hustler or Penthouse and you, by extension, are less an artist than a pornographer.”

Shut it down. Do something else. Stop making the gawking. Stop documenting decay. Ruin ain’t pretty.

Behind the “porn” grenades, these are the core messages that can be teased out. And I am coming to the conclusion that they are fed not so much by the more surface message that ruin porn is bad per se, but rather by something deeper—or an incapability in the American psyche to incorporate failure into the American dream.

To that end, I just came across this 1972 gem of a paragraph that touches on this incapability perfectly. It’s from a book prophetically entitled Urban Wilderness by urban historian Sam Bass Warner Jr.

“American Urban Life confuses us in its intermingling of endless repetition with ceaseless change. Consider our habitual responses. We do not see in the brand-new downtown apartment towers or the freshly carpeted suburban model home the inevitable repetition of failure which surely awaits them…The newness is a goal for family achievement, the reality of aging is either to be obliterated or escaped [italics mine]. The past is not seen in the present…These are deep habits of mind.”

Warner Jr. goes on:

“Since at least the founding of the Republic we have been concealing failure from ourselves with newness…Thus for generations we have dwelt in a self-created urban wilderness of time and space, confounding ourselves with its lusty growth and rising to periodic alarms in the night. It is no accident that we have no urban history.”

But of course we do have history. And it’s messy—tinged with both beauty and filth. And it will exist regardless if its documentation is shamed to a halt.

–By Richey Piiparinen

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