Along with numerous written articles, much invective has been bandied about in regards to the subject of so-called ‘ruin porn.’ Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in discussions centering on the conditions in Rust Belt cities. By now, we are all familiar with the more stereotypical ‘urban decay’ photographers and their (often highly similar) shots of such well known modern ruins as the Michigan Central Station, Gary Methodist Church, or the long silenced Carrie Furnace.
These ubiquitous shots of decay have rankled many a city booster and community activist. Not only does the emotional reaction that many pictures of decay inspire make them difficult to discuss, so does the meaning of the term ruin porn, a blanket description that is often used to describe all types of photographs of abandonment. For much like the definition of pornography itself, which former Chief Justice Potter Stewart famously defined by saying “I know it when I see it,” there is much disagreement over what constitutes ruin porn.
Photographer Ian Ference, in a recent response to an article highly critical of ruin photography by John Patrick Leary, entitled “Detroitism,” brings up a salient point about determining what is and what is not ruin porn: Is the photograph in question simply crass exploitation? He explains how the presentation of a photograph of abandonment is also important; crucial to this is the discussion of “the real and complex history and societal context of the structure.”
Photographers such as Christopher Payne and Clifford Zinc have provided invaluable documentation of historic, albeit abandoned, places that transcend the very limited notions of ruin porn. Even if we debate the merit of work that is heavy on shots of abandonment with seemingly limited historical context, like Charles Moore’s, Detroit Dissembled, ultimately, what criteria will be used to judge it?
Even if Moore is far less interested in people, they are present in some of his photographs. That’s more than can be said of most of this type of work. One of the best criticisms of photographs of abandonment, especially those made by photojournalists, is the failure to include people who live in these areas. There are still 700,000 plus people in Detroit, most of whom are African American. Their invisibility in photographic documentations is directly related to their invisibility in policy circles, or in discussions of urban revitalization. In a way, accentuating the lack of people leads to notions that no one lives in these areas. Ruins become more about the past and what once was, instead of the present.
Perhaps this is related to one of the more crucial and least discussed aspects of urban abandonment photography. Derelict sites attracting photographers in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, and elsewhere are in African American neighborhoods, and the vast majority of those taking the photos are usually white males from privileged class backgrounds. These cities are being viewed through eyes that can hardly be described as diverse; to me this may be far more of an issue.
As Vice Magazine correctly pointed in the article “Something, Something, Something, Detroit,” there is a connection between lazy journalism and ruin porn. Part of this has to do with quickly eroding budgets for documentary photography and investigative journalism. Journalists, like the neophyte working for Time in the article, who only has 24 hours to write a story about Detroit—with no car—are short on both time and resources. Such constraints undoubtedly make stories about Rust Belt cities more reliant on metaphors involving collapsing infrastructure and photos of urban decay.
Photography is of course inherently problematic even outside the realm of urban exploration. Susan Sontag’s eloquent and groundbreaking book, On Photography, is highly instructive in this regard. Sontag points out photography as a medium often fixates on the very beautiful, the very ugly and monstrous, the beautifully ugly, and the beautifully monstrous. Photographs of decay are a classic example. This by itself further blurs the line between documentation, art, and straight up exploitation.
The work of Camilo J. Vergara is perhaps the best photographic use of urban and industrial abandonment. His book, The New American Ghetto, charts the decay of specific structures and neighborhoods over time, giving the viewer a moving example of socioeconomic disinvestment and its effects. Vergara also includes the words of people who live in these neighborhoods as well as general histories of abandoned structures in American Ruins. He focuses more on people in How the Other Half Worships, which explores the religious sites and practices of the urban poor and working class. If viewed in pieces, Vergara’s work could be labeled as ruin porn. As a whole body of work though, his photography represents one of the best documentations of the ghettos and the inner cities of modern America.
Ultimately, what, if anything, can we learn from photographs of urban decay? According to Sontag, “photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and they can help build a nascent one.” The best examples of urban decay photography can provide us with lessons, as well as provoke our outrage. For what is more outrageous, so-called ruin porn, whatever one decides that is, or a society that presides over numerous rapidly collapsing cities filled with gross inequities unknown among modern industrialized democracies?