Darkroomist Photographic culture of the analog variety from the fresh coast.

30Dec/111

Why I dislike the term “Ruin Porn”

My apologies that this went a little long, but there are pictures and (shameless plug) they’re all available as prints from me :-)

First off, in full disclosure, I’m a Ruin “Pornographer”. I love shooting abandoned buildings and do so whenever I get the chance. Lately the term “Ruin Porn” is picking up steam and that bothers me. For a second, I’d like to acknowledge the people who are offended in some sense by this work. I get it, I understand you. I know it must be hard to look at places in varying states of decay where you used to shop, visit an ailing grandparent, had a birthday party, even got married. That’s not how *you* want to remember them. But then again you’re not the intended audience, you’re too close to the issue. To work within the metaphor I’m displeased with: you wouldn’t go to a strip club where your sister worked.

Also it’s very much worth stating that there is a LOT going on in all of the communities where modern ruins exist. Detroit, Gary, Flint, and to a certain extent Saginaw (we’re pretty small potatoes as far as ruins go), all have positive things going on, they’re all trying. Modern ruins shouldn’t be the sole defining emblem of any community; they’re just buildings.

One of the reasons I very much enjoy Urbex photography is precisely because I’m not from here. I grew up in Pennsylvania, in an area in transition between rural and suburban that was and still is growing. Abandoned structures of any kind were extremely rare. A couple of years ago I did some searches for abandoned structures in my home town in preparation for a visit. I found two, one had been torn down and the other was already in the final stages of restoration.

Now that the pleasantries are out of the way lets dig into some of the meat. Why do we still have a problem with porn? Why is it still a negative? A scientific study on the effects of porn had to be scuttled because they couldn’t find a control group of men that *didn’t* use porn. So right off the bat half the population already “likes” porn. Other’s studies point to porn providing a social good. Namely that increased access to porn reduces sexual violence.

Obviously, the term “Ruin Porn” tries to tie the idea of exploitation from porn to the photography of abandoned buildings. This is a false analogy. I think much of the “exploitation” in porn is a hold over from the past. It’s one of the few (only?) industries where the women are paid more than double their male counter parts. Not to mention the latest trend of “cam girls” puts ALL the control in the hands of the performer herself. Add in that Wikipediea’s exploitation page doesn’t mention porn (or Urban Decay photography). Regardless of how much exploitation is in porn if any at all, it’s a major mental stretch to tie that to photographing modern ruins. What’s being exploited? No people are generally depicted. Is it the community? I’ve heard it mentioned that it discourages potential employers from locating there. I can’t confirm or deny it, but it seems quite a stretch. If a potential employer does their due diligence “ruin porn” won’t be what sways their opinion. Conversely Detroit’s gaining the reputation of being the city of possibility where you can start anything.

A more subtle part of why I feel the term “Ruin Porn” is pejorative is the generalization that all the talent in porn is in front of the camera and no talent is required on the part of the photographer. This is just as true in porn as in any photography. It’s easy to find homemade snapshot porn, but for decades mainstream porn has required some serious talent behind the camera. Arny Freytag has ben known to use more than 20 lights calibrated to 1/3rd of a stop to shoot one Playboy Centerfold with an 8×10 large format camera on slide film! That being said, I’ve seen people run around an abandoned structure with a point-and-shot just snapping away. I’ve also seen someone setup a 4×5 view camera on a tripod, precisely measure the light in different areas, adjust the rise, swings, etc, and take a photograph.

Ok, enough about the porn, let’s get to the ruins. One of the reasons why Ruin Porn is so popular is because of the ruins being depicted. Most, if not all of the popular images are of large scale, pre-WWII, public or manufacturing spaces. The places Urbex photographers want to shoot are train stations, schools, hospitals, city halls, prisons, churches, theaters. They’re not really interested in you’re normal, run of the mill, single family house. Pre-WWII buildings tend to have spectacular craftsmanship and materials. It’s buildings like these that have a beauty that shines through “nature’s wrecking ball”, graffiti, and vandalism.

Derelict Colonnade

Detroit specifically is special in that it has a LOT of these types of buildings. Detroit had a big boom with the auto industry prior to WWII and because of it’s resources, MI had a lot of manufacturing in general. Go to New York City, Baltimore, Orlando, LA, Denver, Chicago, any other US city and you’ll be lucky to find a handful of derelict buildings that meet this criteria that Detroit has by the scores. Detroit is the Mecca of the Urbex world. This beauty might be hard for the inhabitants to see. It’s like when you live on the beach, ocean/lake sunsets aren’t very special. No place in the world has modern ruins of the size, scale, and beauty that Detroit does.

While on the topic of aesthetics, there is something beautiful about way in which the confluence of time, natural forces, and vandals dismantle a building. Marble crumbles revealing the rusting rebar beneath. Holes poke in the ceiling allowing water in that turns books into compost from which saplings spring. Paint peels, metal rusts, floors boards warp, it’s a surreal infusion of texture that changes a structure. There is something *worth* photographing there.

Abstractly, modern ruins represent the impermanence of mankind’s creations and of our own mortality. Ancient ruins just don’t back the same psychological punch that modern ruins do. Modern ruins are more recognizable as something “of us”. It’s startling to see just how quickly nature’s wrecking ball can work. It’s not how we like to see ourselves. I think it might hit Americans a little harder because we’re a newer country, we believe we’re “exceptional” and yet nature reclaims our creations faster than it did many of Europe’s. I also heard it said that “American happiness is based on denying death.” Which, if that’s the case, there’s something very countercultural to depicting these structures.

Urbex photography is also a race against time. Eventually, in most cases, time or people pull a building down. Just documenting a magnificent building’s existence becomes important to the photographer. Here’s a sampling of building’s I’ve had the privilege to shoot that are no longer with us:

rural decay IR

Camp Pellston

Fort Saginaw Mall

House of Oak

Linked to the need to provide a record of these buildings is a need to record this time period for future generation. Make no mistake, for these communities it’s been a rough half century. The decline has been slow and wrought with pain. But does that mean we pretend it doesn’t exist? Do we ignore it? It’s not my intention to profit from pouring salt on a wound, though it may seem so to some. Rather I’m trying, with varying degrees of success to provoke thought about a society that allows this to happen to treasured structures, about entropy, about man’s relation to nature, and about a culture so greedy it allows cities to crumble and communities to evaporate (and that knife cuts both ways). I’d like to briefly mention that one of the unseen forces condemning these structures are national, state, and local regulations. Every old building will have lead paint, asbestos, and probably mold. The regulations for restoring these structures lump on huge expenses that favor demo and rebuilding over preservation.

Finally, there’s an element of adventure in all this. “Ruin Porn” was born out of Urban Exploration (Urbex for short). Urban exploration is the quasi-illegal activity of seeing what’s you should be looking at. It’s going in abandoned buildings, factories, and the like just to see what’s there. “Ruin Porn” is just a natural extension of that. There is a (manageable) amount of risk. Photographers have been held up for their equipment or arrested for trespass. For a mid-thirties, happily married, father of two it’s a welcome change of pace.

In closing, I hope I’ve provoked some thought about the term “ruin porn” as being sensationalist and misleading because there is historical, aesthetic, artistic, and experiential value in the imagery.

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  1. Great article, and well thought out.

    I can’t help but think I was partially responsible. I found an interesting article on the term, and Tweeted it along, not knowing that it would be picked up by several papers.

    Personally, I prefer “Urbex,” or in my neck of the woods, “Rurex.” I’ll be sure to use those terms exclusively from now on.

    Cheers! And great shots!!


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