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Confessions Of A Ruin Pornographer: A Lurid Tale of Art, Double Standards, and Decay (Part I)

Posted: 14th January 2012
In: Blog
by Matthew Christopher

In the past few years, the popularity of photographing ruins has exploded. Aided by the ability to find locations via the internet, the omnipresence and inexpensiveness of digital photography, and the plethora of forums and photo sharing sites to distribute images, interest in the subject has increased exponentially. What was once a niche hobby shared by a small but hardcore contingent of chronic trespassers has mushroomed to such a degree that there are thousands upon thousands of photographs of abandoned locations uploaded daily to image sharing websites, hundreds of gallery shows, books, and websites dealing with them, dozens of articles discussing the subject in high profile newspapers and journals, and even television shows on urban exploration. With the ubiquity of the medium has come an increasing backlash against what has been popularly termed 'ruin porn' that alleges that the genre is more a voyeuristic romp through scenes of economic devastation by a bevy of photographers interested in self-promotion and profiteering on suffering than a legitimate artistic endeavor.

As a photographer who has visited hundreds of abandoned sites across America for nearly a decade, I can't claim objectivity in the matter. I have been to nearly every type of site imaginable, from factories and schools to churches and asylums, and my fledgling artistic career has been built on lecturing on the them and displaying my work on the subject via lectures, gallery showings, and my website abandonedamerica.us (hey! that's where you are now!). The term 'ruin porn' has been leveled at my photography on multiple occasions - much to my chagrin - and each time I have tried to defend the validity of not only my own forays in the field but also the topic as a whole as a sort of modern archaeology and an important critical reflection of our times.

Above: Ruin Porn

'Ruin porn' was originally coined as an angry response to the work of hoards of photographers and journalists flocking to Detroit to show the city's decline and the building resentment among locals at this one-sided depiction of their home. Local writers' frustration stemmed from the fact that they felt the medium was reveling in a shallow, post-apocalyptic representation that ignored efforts at renewal and very real problems that were faced by residents of Detroit. The continual focus on blight and decay, they felt, hampered efforts to promote positive aspects of the city and in fact perpetuated the popular perception of Detroit as a war-torn ghost town. Articles condemning the practice were followed by impassioned (and, to some, also one-sided) essays extolling the virtues of Detroit's burgeoning art scene and efforts toward economic improvement. Detroit had become the poster child for American ruin, and even despite the fact that said art scene (which was arguably aiding renewal) was partly comprised of an influx of artists interested in decay, an attitude of hostility towards this unflattering distinction developed. As in Venice, a city whose economy is based on tourism that is contributing to the rate at which it is sinking underwater, this new 'tourist' industry did have a mixture of benefits and detrimental effects. On one hand, this 'ruin porn' neglected to inform viewers of the efforts of residents to improve their town. On the other, the increased attention of outsider photographers created interest in the subject and brought these stories of renewal and growth to a public that might otherwise not have cared about them. It opened up a dialogue about the status of the city and its future that drew national awareness, and despite their hostility towards the subject, that awareness was nevertheless capitalized on by the very writers who rejected the photographers who visited their city. After all, who would be as familiar with the term 'ruin porn' or the debate on Detroit's status if not for the initial series of articles and photographs? In my opinion, while there is validity to both sides of the debate, nobody would be listening to that debate without the 'eye candy' that brought it to light.

Since then, the term has been used with increasing frequency, to the point that the real meaning has been diluted and is unfamiliar to many of the very people who use it. It is bandied about carelessly because it sounds hip and contemporary, much like 'sexting': it brings to mind a certain raciness, a taboo element of titillation and excitement that perhaps goes hand in hand with viewing images of potentially unsafe environments that often the photographers do not have permission to enter. Many who use the term to do not perceive it to be any insult to the work being discussed at all, which is perhaps in keeping with what it originally implied: a glib, superficial understanding of a deeply complex subject. In this context, it merely represents the gleeful desire and attraction viewers have for the images (much akin to, say, 'food porn') rather than a critical slam at the genre as being exploitative and shallow.

To others, the word represents a sort of victimization and fetishization of despair. What exactly makes one guilty of this egregious sin is still contested: is it merely presenting images of ruin for consumption without any context? Is it aestheticizing decay? Is it profiting from and making a career based on images of ruin? 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. One common thread is that it typically applies to making 'pretty' pictures of abandoned sites, but beyond that consensus on the definition starts to fall apart. To one person it could be the use of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography, which they do not care for and feel is trivializing the subject by making it beautiful. To another critic, it could be making images that romanticize places that they believe should be torn down for urban renewal, while yet another might contend that simply exploring places without properly advocating for preservation qualifies as 'ruin porn'. To some, the mere act of presenting a body of work chronicling ruins is all the qualification that is necessary, regardless of what else is done by the photographer or what the intention is, because they view the entire category as trite and clich├ęd. It becomes a sort of maddening, meandering mess of expectations and accusations, with each writer feeling they have the correct set of parameters of what the work should and should not accomplish and how it should be done. 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.

While the term is extraordinarily useful for brushing off the significance of an entire genre of work, it is much less useful for entering an actual discussion. It breezily dismisses the subject as perverse and pointless with the same carefree lack of thought and responsibility that the original photographers who were described with the term were accused of having. When examined more thoroughly, much like the topic of abandoned spaces, it reveals a wealth of material worthy of pondering. What are the responsibilities of an artist or photographer to their subject, and should they be chastised for attempting to make a profession of documenting ruins? What is ethical or unethical in an area so ripe for exploitation? Is art required to make some statement one way or another about a subject, and in that case what should the statement be? More to the point, is existing as an object of beauty justifiable in and of itself or must it 'accomplish' something? Must a photograph present both sides of a story? Is this genre unfairly saddled with a set of standards that are rarely applied to others?

In the following series of articles, we'll examine these topics in greater depth, in addition to trying to shed some light on the topic of urban exploration as it relates to contemporary culture and what its place in the dialogue about renewal, preservation, and art might be. In the meanwhile, please feel free to share thoughts and opinions, and stop back soon for more.

Continue on to Part II: A Chronicle of Failure
Continue on to Part III: On Dealing With the Dead
Photographs and text by Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America. 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: Thank you for taking the time to address some of the issues that the label "ruin porn" raises inside and outside the photographic community. Your first installment of the article provides a good introduction that wets one's appetite and encourages further thought, deliberation, and dialogue. You raise many important questions and put the issue into context for those unfamiliar with or confused by the label's many connotations, misrepresentations, and implications. As someone who has followed your work for several years, I have always been impressed by your integrity and thoughtfulness when it comes to doing right by these places. You live by a self-imposed code of honor that reflects your love and reverence for these spaces, and as far as I can see, you never miss an opportunity to pay heed to a site's historical and cultural significance or the impact it has had on surrounding communities and individuals. Your thoughtfulness and attention to nuance extends to the architects and caretakers of these sites, preservationists, and documentarians. I understand why the term "ruin porn" is so disagreeable to both you the photographer and us the viewers or appreciators. In my mind, whether intended or not, it is a tool that may easily be used to minimize and undermine the meaningful exchange that is really happening here. It is also disheartening that words are so often used as weapons when put into the arsenal of those seeking to destroy another person's credibility -- and for no other end but to buffer one's own insecurities or to satisfy the need for attention and self-validation. If anything, I think that by raising the issues you personally have with this label, you have acknowledged that it is important to you that your work has meaning and significance beyond its aesthetic beauty. While you are still discovering daily what this is all for, what this all means, and what will come of it, I know many of us appreciate that you continue to do what you do despite all of the uncertainty that you feel.
Photo comment By Tracy S-Homer: I would not hesitate to believe that many have exhaled a breath long held after reading this series introduction. Addressing this concomitant gives supporters erudition to be promoters, rather than defenders, of this art.
Photo comment By Jason Shepard: This was an interesting read. Actually, I've come across others that despise this terminology even more than you do. In fact, some photographers get rather angry any time they so much as hear this term. But, let's explore this a little bit. I actually prefer the term "ruin porn" as I find it descriptive, intriguing, and interest-generating. Pornography is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as "Lurid or sensational material" (Farlex, 2012). In fact, I do find photographs of abandonment and decay to be sensational images. They don't "turn me on" per se, however, they do get my creative juices flowing. I spend hours staring at images of ruin, but I'm not doing so because I appreciate them as an art form or because I'm physically attracted to them. Rather, I'm picturing the entire repurposing project in my head. I am imagining not "what has been," but rather "what could be" in a reuse project. I take into account the surroundings, layout, original design intentions, and historical significance (if the photos and information are available of these aspects). If I see enough potential in the location (if provided), surrounding area (if known), and the building itself, I contact friends of mine who are developers and financiers to see if they have an interest in rescuing the place. I have, many, MANY times, had to ignore a place not because it has promise, but rather because the photographer, out of some ludicrous desire to keep a place to him- or herself or in a desperate, generally worthless attempt to "save" the place from vandals, has refused to disclose the location or even the general vicinity of the ruin. While it may, very rarely, prevent damage from vandals, it is also, very frequently, preventing those with the funds and interest from rescuing these blighted buildings and making them available for reuse. The fact that photographers are afraid, for whatever reason, to disclose locations is the primary negative connotation that I associate with the term "ruin porn." Keeping this information "secret" makes it appear to give ruin photography the connotation of being "bad" and this exacerbates the situation. I love your photography, but I see some of the same issues here that I see at dozens, even hundreds, of other websites just like yours: refusal to disclose locations and use of HDR (which does not give those of us looking at the reuse prospects a realistic image of the place). What I am glad to see is a lot more information on the "backstory" of the place that I don't run into very often. That I appreciate and so do those I speak with about these properties. Like you state, there are many different types of people and many different perspectives. Mine is only one of those and probably rather unique in the field. Hopefully, it will give you yet another angle to work from and provide a greater understanding of the term as well as knowledge that there are those out there who are actively seeking to rescue these ignored, derelict places and turn them into useful members of society once again. In fact, my family and I are deconstructing a barn and reconstructing it on our property to use as the framework for our new home and an abandoned silo to use as the framework for a multi-story playhouse for our children - our small part to play in reclaiming history. Speaking of history, that's yet another aspect of this that many don't realize yet (although the recent photographic documentation of New York City that was released to the public should help this be understood) -- You are documenting a fast-being-erased architectural history. As the pace of demolitions rapidly increases in an attempt to "wipe out blight" and "raise property values in the surrounding areas," this aspect of your photography will become more and more important as time goes on. Don't worry if there are people like me that don't see the artistic value of your photography. There are so many other aspects to consider that one small segment of the population with a lack of respect for any value in this photography isn't going to be a problem overall...At least that's IMO. -Jason

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