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Confessions of a Ruin Pornographer Part III: On Dealing With the Dead

Posted: 07th February 2012
In: Blog
At its core, the photography of ruins is fundamentally about death. While there are a myriad of elements that can be brought into the discussion including but not limited to art criticism, history, preservation advocacy, and sociology, the very basis for the entire genre is that the photographs are of abandoned - or dead - spaces. It could be argued that such spaces still house life (in the form of the flora and fauna that reclaim them), and therefore are spaces in transition, but the key element is that what they once were created for is no longer. Much in the same way, a host of chemical and biological processes continue in a corpse but it is still no longer considered living. It is this concept that frames many of the discussions and accusations about the genre; those living in Detroit, for example, chafe at their city being characterized as 'dead' when there are still living citizens and businesses that inhabit it. Nevertheless, this aspect of the work is what frames our response, and is critical to decoding our reactions (and the reactions of others) to it.

The set of expectations and taboos surrounding the photography of death is firmly entrenched. We expect that the images will be presented with respect, and we expect that the photographer will not 'take advantage' of the subject by exploiting them. Sally Mann's work photographing corpses at the University of Tennesee's anthropological facility where decay is studied provoked strong reactions from viewers (much to her delight) because of drawing them uncomfortably close to this fine line. Some described this body of work as 'beyond contempt', and it does raise a host of uneasy questions about motive, such as whether Mann was using the photographs of remains for shock value to promote her career. In one article about it, she is "observed happily wandering from cadaver to cadaver, prodding this body part and stroking that one". The issues of privacy and the idea that someone could potentially treat our remains or those of a loved one in a similar manner can never be far from the audience's mind. Conversely, there is Mann's own statement that "There's a new prudery around death. We've moved it into hospital, behind screens, and no longer wear black markers to acknowledge its presence. It's become unmentionable." Contemporary artists such as Andres Serrano, Enrique Metinides, and Maeve Berry also photograph the remains of the dead, and have similar controversies surrounding their work. In their defense, the photography of corpses is far from a new practice and was in fact much more widespread in the past. Post-mortem photographs of deceased family members or criminals were common in the 19th century, yet flourished for different reasons.

Untitled, WR Pa 53 (2001) from the series What Remains. Photograph: Sally Mann/Gagosian Gallery

While an abandoned building can certainly be anthromorphized either intentionally or unintentionally, and while it is in many cases used as a metaphor for the human body or spirit, the simple fact is that it is not a corpse. Shattered windows may resemble eyes, open doors may remind us of mouths hanging agape, but an abandoned structure we are viewing is a man-made object. While life has inhabited it, it has never been a living entity. Does this mean that viewing it with the same set of standards and preconceptions is unfair? In some ways, I would argue that it is not. While a derelict building may in actuality not be a corpse, in some ways it may perhaps be far more significant than one. A human's body may only hold a connection to the few dozen people who knew or loved them, but a dead factory may have had deep personal significance to hundreds if not thousands of workers. A church is not just an object, it is for many a symbol of a union with the divine, a place where babies are baptized, couples are married, solace is sought, and the deceased are put to rest. While the meaning and use of these sites can be called merely projections of our own will and desire, these connections are very real and very deeply rooted in the emotions of those who harbor them. To see a place you once called home destroyed by vandals may not physically injure you, but it is an erasure of your past, an attack on a part of your being. We expect a photographer who deals with these sites to tread lightly and with respect, and rightfully so; they are the bodies of hopes and ambitions, and in their link to our shared heritage and common past, they are in essence a part of all of our 'extended family'. Far from images of actual corpses that some may consider shocking and gruesome, these sites allow us to confront mortality on a much larger scale in a context that is perhaps less immediately horrific. Just as the family members might grieve through post mortem photographs of children, posed as though they were sleeping and perhaps surrounded by flowers, photographs can be used for closure and obtaining a sense of release from the confrontation of loss and acknowledgement of memory.

However, while closure can be one intent/reaction, as Laurie Beth Clark's pointed out in "Never Again and Its Discontents", her essay about the purpose of museum exhibits based upon atrocities, another possible intent/reaction can be that of disclosure. Disclosure is almost a form of activism or protest. While exhibits with the intention of closure are there to essentially fit "a conventional model of trauma therapy wherein a patient orchestrates a structured visit to the setting of a traumatic experience in order to put to the pain to rest", those with the purpose of disclosure favor "learning from the past and perpetual vigilance lest we repeat these crimes." This is the expectation that I find is most common of the photography of ruins: that the photographer will disclose the history of a site, the status of the community and the impact the loss had on them, and advocate for preservation and prevention of the future loss of historic structures. While this is certainly a legitimate endeavor and one that I have worked towards with my own photography, it can also be limiting. Rather than the photography of ruins existing for its own sake, it must justify itself by what it does or tries to do. It can't simply provide a locus for closure, or a eulogy - this is much derided as a shallow lament for a nostalgic past that never existed or wallowing in the loss of others.

How does an image like this function differently if viewed as a source
of closure for the members of the community who frequented this social
club, as an historical record of elks lodges, as advocacy for preservation,
or a statement about the overall mortality of mankind's endeavors?

Further complicating the subject of the representation of death through ruins, and directly connected to the closure/disclosure schism in their reading, is the separate set of expectations we have for artists representing their own impending demise versus the artist representing the demise of another. Sally Mann's work exemplifies this in the accusations of her critics that she exploits the death of others. That she could merely celebrate the colors and forms of the decay in corpses seems perverse and unpalatable. Checkov observed that what makes a great writer is that they "move you in a certain direction and they summon you there too, and you feel, not with your mind alone, but with your whole being, that they have a goal, like the ghost of Hamlet's father who does not come and trouble the imagination for nothing." When an artist examines the death of another, it is expected that they are not troubling us with the ghost of another for nothing. We anticipate an almost narrative quality to their work, a certain dignity and gravitas, and a destination that their work will take us to where we can close the book on the subject and leave with a feeling of greater understanding - not only of the deceased, but of mortality and the meaning of life itself. Certainly this is evident in cinema and literature. For the death of another person to be displayed as an example of chaos and meaninglessness in a nonfiction work is almost unheard of.

However, if an artist is representing their own death, many of the strictures on how the work is presented vanish. We don't expect someone like Jo Spence or David Wojnarowicz (who represented their own death through self portraits) to provide us with some lofty understanding of the meaning of life or death. We understand and accept that their work may be frustrated, confused, angry, accusatory, or sad. Much as we try to allow those who are coping with their own death the freedom to process it in whatever way they need to, we allow the artist to represent the subject as best they see fit and try to view the work for what it is. In this case, impending death is all the context that is needed.

While the depiction of abandoned buildings is most frequently seen as the artist's approach to the death of another, and while this is in some cases accurate, it can also be read as their reaction to their own death. If this is the case, then the reading may change entirely and the dialogue over whether closure/disclosure are critical to the merits of the work is rendered nearly irrelevant. What of a photographer who is diagnosed with a fatal illness and chooses to sublimate that into images of ruins? Would we call their work 'ruin porn' or expect that they provide some outside context about the impact on the community? Would we ask that they present their work as activism or as a political statement about the destruction of the past, or could we simply allow it to exist as a manifestation of their own meditation on their mortality? If we would be more lenient with such photographs under these auspices, we must ask ourselves if expecting a terminal illness to allow a work to speak for itself on mortality is justified. After all, we are all mortal, and when stripped of outside context the presentation of ruins speaks of a death that awaits us all. Furthermore, if a body of work presents these places as the death of a way of life or worse, the death of an empire, unless the person presenting them somehow can manage to extricate themselves from the situation, their death may be implicit in the work. Even if it is not the intention of the artist to present their depictions of ruins as some sort of indicator of impending social collapse as I do, the slow deterioration and eventual demolition of a location (or even its renovation, which would still erase the current state of disrepair) are very much analogous to the deletion of their existence and the qualities that make it up by time, and ultimately the frailty of the human condition. If the purpose of the artwork is an exploration of these things, is it not somewhat demeaning to the art and the artist to ask that they package their message for our consumption? If this is so, how does this translate to the artwork that is literally dealing with the dead?

These are questions without easy answers, but they merit serious thought before one enters into the critical dialogue about whether a work dealing with ruins is justified or not and whether or not we dismiss the artist and their intentions. Perhaps the one thing that we are excused for expecting of the work is some intentionality and thought, regardless of what that intentionality or thought may be. Dealing with the death of others, one's own death, or the subject of mortality as a whole is a heavy and difficult topic to navigate. I do not think that it is unreasonable to expect, like Checkov did of writers, that the artist does not trouble your imagination for nothing.

Continue on to Part I: A Lurid Tale of Art, Double Standards, and Decay
Continue on to Part II: A Chronicle of Failure
Photographs and text by Matthew Christopher. If you're interested in more Abandoned America blogs, follow this link. If you enjoy my writing, check out my books: Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream (Amazon / Barnes & Noble) or Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences (Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Signed copies).


Photo comment By Olivia Antsis: Excellent article with compelling and thought-provoking observations. You ask some meaningful questions -- I hope you get many responses.
Photo comment By Glen: Well thought out, well spoken. I do charity work with children in hospice - remembrence photography is much better understood in Europe where it holds a stronger tradition. For such things as we photograph, it always comes down to a moment captured and frozen in time. For some entities, child or ruin, there is no better future to wait for to take the photograph - it is all about now.

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