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Confessions of a Ruin Pornographer Part II: A Chronicle of Failure

24th January 2012
In: Blog
by matthew christopher

One of the many things that interests me about the locations I photograph is that each one represents failure. On a micro level, this is evidenced in the building itself and the failure of the owners to fund/maintain whatever it was established for. On a macro level, it often applies to the community's inability to support the business, and to an even greater extent can be indicative of lost industries and economic collapse on the county and state level. I would argue that the culmination of these failures shows a trend even greater (and more ominous), that of an overall social decline leading to the fall of an entire empire.

When the term "ruin porn" is used, it is frequently joined with expectations that the photographer being discussed is accused of failing to meet. If this were not the case, there would be no need for such a derogatory term. The frequent criticism is that photography of abandoned sites constitutes artistic slumming, that the photographer is exploiting the misfortunes of others for economic and professional gain. After all, there is a profound sorrow inherent in these images. If one approaches them for anything beyond their surface aesthetic, the failures on a micro and macro level become clear. There is a sense of helplessness and injustice about them. Shouldn't someone be able to save this building? What happened to the people who lost their jobs in that factory? Who is to blame?

Photobucket
The Church of the Transfiguration's demolition remains one of the most heartwrenching examples
of senseless architectural destruction I have witnessed.


To make matters worse, there are no easy answers presented by the work itself, and happy stories of rehabilitation and reuse are few and far between. The Church of the Transfiguration in Philadelphia was one of the most breathtaking buildings I've ever seen; everywhere you looked there were more mosaics, statues, reliefs. Unlike many other places I've visited, there was very little structural damage. It could have been saved, but shortly after I visited it demolition began and almost none of the church escaped the landfill. The sense of loss and outrage is still heavy among the parishioners, and rightfully so in my opinion. This is the norm in my line of photography. We always are racing the wrecking ball, and sifting through the remains of the hopes and ambitions of others. As a viewer, you want there to be a happy ending. As a photographer, and one who is presenting things as they are to you, there is none that I know of. You can shake your fists at the sky as much as you want, but there are no comforting solutions to the images that allow you to move on.

In the polarized political climate of today, there is always someone to blame. We can blame greed and capitalism, the church itself, developers, the Republicans/Democrats, poor city planning - the list is truly endless. The important thing is that, for closure's sake, we need to pin the fault on someone so we can wash our hands of the situation and go back to our regularly scheduled routines. As often as not, it is just as easy to shoot the messenger, to claim their work is without merit because, hey, what are they really accomplishing by showing us these things? Photographs like the ones I produce don't even presume to have an answer. They plop an ugly question at your feet, be it wrapped in a pleasing image or not, and just leave it there for you to ponder. The shattered windows and collapsing floors stare at you wordlessly asking, Why? Why do beautiful things fall to disrepair? Who allowed it? What will be left of us after we are gone? Why must ideals die, and why bother with life if all our endeavors end in oblivion and obscurity?

Writers and bloggers tackle the subject from a myriad of angles but the truth is that the tropes are already in place. The images can speak of depression and despair, urban blight, serve as memento mori, romanticize the past, and so on. The problem is that like the images, no matter how much you try to take a fantastically complex subject that touches on everything from socioeconomic conditions to art to the very meaning of life and death, no mere article can ever hope to adequately address the subject or answer the dilemma any better than a picture can. Rather than admitting that this is an issue far too large for any artist or writer to ever manage, it is easier to simply reject the subject outright as well as the person who brought it up. My friend and fellow photographer Matthew Palmer observed, "I never understood how photographing an abandoned building now has some kind of stigma associated with it in the academic world unless you directly use said photos to somehow single handedly save the derelict structure or tell a journalistic story of the woes of the people who lived/worked there. If you posted pictures of national parks nobody would say you are shooting landscape porn because you didn't go into detail on the geological processes that formed the Grand Tetons or the history of the Indians who live at the base of the Grand Canyon. If you posted pictures of animals at the zoo nobody would say you are doing a social injustice for not going into the evolutionary history of the tiger or the fiscal difficulties facing the zoo's lack of state funding."

In the face of the insecurity that the lack of certainty inspires, and in light of the fact that the people bringing the questions to light can't possibly hope to answer them either, the easy option is to dismiss the subject. To do so, you must find fault in the one raising the question: the photographer. What is the photographer trying to accomplish? Isn't the subject trite and overdone? How is their work helping the situation? We ask these things knowing that no matter what the answer is, we will deem it unsatisfactory. With minds already made up, we will point to another problem: how have you ever helped anyone? Have you ever saved a building? Who do you think you are?

As a photographer of ruins, please allow me to answer that as directly as I can: I don't know. I don't know why I became obsessed with this line of photography, or why I spend all of my time and money creating images of these places. I can spout theories until the end of time, but ultimately I don't know. If I contract mesothelioma from all the asbestos I've inhaled, if I fall through a floor tomorrow and die or wind up paralyzed, I will have no better idea what the purpose of it was or what it accomplished. I've tried to 'raise awareness' and 'promote preservation' and I sincerely believe this is an important subject that we have no choice but to address as American cities decline if we are ever to hope to move forward. Nevertheless, I capture images. They do not save places or people. I may sing the praises of people who restore historic sites, but I never have been able to do so myself. I may try to share whatever fragments of history I have unearthed, and present them in the form of art so that people may understand what it is that makes me love them, but I have no clear indication of a single quantifiable effect this has had on anyone or anything. I can't tell you what we need to do to avert the disasters these sites represent. I can tell you that for all I've looked for an answer - and I sincerely have tried to find one - the problem is layered like an onion, and no matter how deep you cut into it, there are only more questions.

I have theories, endless theories. Buy me a drink some night and I'll gladly tell you all the great lessons hindsight can teach when applied to abandoned buildings or the reasons I think the trend will continue until we have little left to lose. I can even tell you my hypotheses on what we should do to avoid it and why we never will. Ask me what I did to keep Transfiguration from being demolished, or how I kept them from tearing Taunton State Hospital down, and I'll probably stare back at you silently for a few long moments before putting my coat on and leaving for the night. I didn't know what to do. Beyond this limited forum on my website, and trying to periodically poke up activism on the part of people who enjoy my work, I haven't done much in concrete terms. Does that mean I am exploiting the misery of others? I don't know that either. Thanks for asking.

As stated in the beginning of the article, these images represent failures. They represent failures of individuals, of businesses, of social systems, economies, towns and cities, states, ambitions and ideals, and maybe even our country as a whole. They also represent my own failures. I have not saved these places. I have not saved the people who lost their jobs from the unemployment lines, from poverty, or from any of the other problems the loss of these places caused. I am not perched somewhere safely above it all, impartially decreeing who was right and who was wrong. I live in a word that seems to me to be falling apart, and I can't escape it. When these places are ultimately destroyed, by vandalism and arson and the wrecking ball, it isn't something I observe with idle detachment. Beyond the destruction of our shared history and heritage, the demolition of these sites represents the destruction of my own personal past and the relationship I formed with these places. That grief and helplessness affects me deeply and I feel it at times like I would the loss of a friend. The guilty feeling that I somehow failed the places I photograph, the people who built them, and the people who brought them to life, is something I can never escape. I don't know what art accomplishes. I don't know if it accomplishes anything, or if we just create practical justifications for what we like and what we do. If you ask to measure some tangible benefit that what I do has to justify its existence or validate it as an art form, I can't. I create documents and records of moments that are imploding around me, literally and metaphorically. Beyond that, you're on your own. If that makes my work "ruin porn" and this site little more than a chronicle of failure, so be it.



Continue on to Part I: A Lurid Tale of Art, Double Standards, and Decay
Continue on to Part III: On Dealing With the Dead

Comments

Photo comment By Debra Myers: I can't give you a definitive answer why your photography touches me the way that it does, I only know that evokes many emotions within me...sadness, longing, failure (as you mentioned), etc. I just know the images are beautiful!
Photo comment By Emily Harrison: I'm a little late to the game, but since I discovered your photography a few weeks ago, I can't stop looking. I don't think there are words to accurately describe the emotions your work evokes in me. I realize it should make me sad, at least a little, but I can't get past the un-named emotion in the first place. The feeling of stillness in many of your photographs is nearly overwhelmeing, like deafening silence. Some feel warm, others cold, but all are places I want to climb inside of and just... be... for awhile. Thank you for sharing your work.

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