Detroit is a city marked by the moldering carcass of the industrial American dream. Once the site of monuments to the power of production, Detroit is now famous for the decay of historic buildings. The ruins of Detroit, captured by photographers, frame the carcass of the American dream in striking photographs. That so much of such grandeur could be allowed to crumble and decay seems almost unthinkable. It seems somehow obscene. It is not surprising, then, that images documenting this collapse have come together to form a genre of photography popularly referred to as “ruin porn.”
To take up the conversation offered by so-called ruin porn is to take up a tangled set of cultural operations. Popular images work to create and maintain oppressive stereotypes. In the case of Detroit, arresting images of crumbling architecture have created a narrative that Detroit is beyond saving. “Ruin porn” is an undeniably catchy label. And much about the circulation of images of the ruins of buildings like the Packard Motors plant evokes pornography. For example, by dramatically capturing our attention these images create a desire for more images—newer, better, more explicit. But what does it mean to label a class of photography “ruin porn”?
Labeling these images as pornographic creates implications downstream. To be pornographic, by definition, is to be obscene. Despite pornography’s broad popularity (according to Nielsen/NetRatings, pornography accounts for a third of all internet traffic), porn is not generally considered acceptable for the mainstream. If we walk out the implications for ruin photography, considering these images as “ruin porn” frames these images as dirty or debauched—not for viewing by nice people. Or at least not in public. By labeling ruin photography as a sort of pornography, these types of images are positioned not only as titillating in a naughty sort of way, but more problematically, as something to be dismissed by polite people.
The label “ruin porn” brings with it a particular kind of viewing relationship. Pornography is not typically intended as an opening for challenging cultural conversations or as a way to engage in connection with another. Pornography is a means to an end: not an entry into a relationship, but an opportunity for self-defined and self-focused pleasure. In the words of James Deen, one of the most well-known porn stars today (see profiles by ABC’s “Nightline” and GQ): “Porn has the singular purpose to sexually arouse, and once that’s achieved the product is discarded. Porn is like Coca-Cola: when it’s finished, you go out and buy another one.” Once labeled as pornography, ruin photographs become unremarkable; one small collection in a vast network of similar serialized images, closed off to engagement.
Instead of labeling ruin photographs as pornography, I wonder if such images are perhaps better understood as a form of still life. Still life paintings find visual impact by juxtaposing form and content: the heroic, elegant depiction of the unheroic domestic materials of daily life. Still life owes its strongest and most coherent lineage to 16th and 17th century Dutch painters. Dutch still lifes are primarily vanitas paintings: visual arguments against materialism.
Anchored in a booming economy that would become a sort of footprint for capitalist markets, 16th century Dutch culture found itself caught between the dichotomy of celebrating wealth and the material comforts that affluence brought, and the culturally dominant Biblical teachings warning of the temptations offered by this same prosperity. This paradox took visual form in vanitas paintings which illustrated this tension. Common vanitas elements included bread and wine (representing holy communion), hourglasses or watches (emphasizing the shortness of life), and rotting fruit, wilted flowers, or bugs (denoting death).
In a similar way, we can see in ruin photography a morality tale of the dangers of material excess, a reminder that wealth and prosperity are fleeting and fickle. Grand ruins impart a sense of sacred space. These places mark sites of majestic industry which testify to the creativity of the human spirit, the will of human imagination, the capability of the human hand. Images of historic Detroit buildings such as the Packard Plant and Michigan Central Station celebrate the power of human creativity and labor, at the same time as they warn against the excesses of empire. Ruin photography presents us with a dramatic visual—buildings that once testified to seemingly unstoppable forces of progress, now brought to nothing. These are heroic images, romantic depictions capturing the visual friction between elegant plays of light and vast swaths of destruction.
Such images make us reflect on the human condition. As photographers Marchand and Meffre state in their portfolio of Detroit ruins, “Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension . . . . making us [wonder] about the permanence of things.”
This post is adapted from an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Journal of Media Ethics on June 14, 2013, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/08900523.2013.784669.