The Politics and Archaeology of “Ruin Porn”

An enormous number of artists, urbanites, and even archaeologists have begun to focus their attention on the aesthetics and materiality of ruin in a discourse commonly dubbed as “ruin porn.”  The pornography metaphor invokes the focus on a purely self-centered gaze and seeing urban and industrial ruination for sensationalistic if not purely emotional and instinctive reasons.  Some commentators are unnerved by the implication that the mostly visual documentation of ruination simultaneously shares with pornography the un-expressible and purely self-centered satisfaction of voyeuristic viewing.  Yet artist Matthew Christopher thoughtfully defends his photographic “autopsy of the American Dream” as a “sort of modern archaeology,” making a truly persuasive case for the political might of documenting urban devastation with images and archaeological analysis alike.

Perhaps no building has appeared in “ruin porn” more often than Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. Completed in 1913, the Beaux-Arts landmark stopped receiving trains in 1988. (Image courtesy Chad and Steph)

The story of urban America is undeniably one of dramatic post-war decline that could truly be likened to social and material apocalypse in some communities, and in many ways similar tales can be told of many industrial and urban landscapes throughout the world.   Many of the chroniclers of American material devastation are criticized as hipster photographers accused of simply engaging their fascination with urban decline as they reclaim cities, a point made thoughtfully and fairly by John Patrick Leary’s brilliant analysis of “ruin porn” in Detroit.  Detroit has perhaps witnessed more of this discourse than any other American city.  Sometimes Detroit is taken as a lamentation on the fate of American (if not global) cities; Andrew Moore’s photographs of Detroit might be circumspectly placed in this category, with one observer seeming to applaud that “Without straying into politics, [his book Detroit Disassembled is] an eloquent plea for new national policies aimed at helping places like Detroit and Cleveland survive and become more competitive,” though Moore is one of the rare artists who includes people in his images.  For others Detroit is a visual challenge to Americans’ historical amnesia about the stability of auto industry and broader corporate capital; sometimes this risks lapsing into a shallow commentary on the tolls of auto industry mismanagement and union greed (a point made by Mitt Romney in a 2008 op-ed sensationally titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” that he subsequently has revisited), but it is difficult to capture the mechanics of abandonment and the human tolls in a photograph alone.

Interior of the Michigan Central Station (photo copyright: Jeremy Blakeslee)

Critics often argue that ruin photographs are inevitably fetishized depictions of complex social processes that hazard effacing those processes, and the High Dynamic Range photography that is often used in “ruin porn” does indeed aestheticize and drench the most bland spaces in color.  Yet the dilemma of rejecting such images as fetishized is that any photograph is a selective representation of reality that cannot hope to capture concrete experience.  Pornography does at least visually own up to its desires; in contrast, urban renewal commonly aspires to efface all material and aesthetic remnants of heritage and conceal the ideological interests that produced the contemporary urban landscape.

Urban abandonment is of course a historical process that happens over time and is driven by concrete material and social processes, but photographs of ruins belie much of that temporal depth and those processes of change.  Camilo Jose Vergara has photographically documented American cities since the 1970s with the goal of visualizing change over time, which variously involves abandonment, rebirth, and social transformation alike, and Vergara does not restrict his gaze simply to impoverished contexts in inner cities.  His collections in places as disparate as Richmond, California, Harlem, and Camden, New Jersey have a historical depth that is nearly non-existent in other ruination photography.  But apologists are reluctant to concede the historical depth of these material processes and sometimes seem sensitive that “bad press” will hinder their favored forms of growth and revival.  Other projects like Can’t Forget the Motor City simply hope to temper the picture of a complex place like Detroit otherwise painted in “soulless images.”

Much of “ruin porn” illustrates the decline of once-stylish cities like Detroit (courtesy calamity_hane)

The class and racial dimensions of this discourse run quietly and somewhat uncomfortably beneath the surface, and those social dimensions may distinguish “ruin porn” from the numerous people who have been fascinated with ruins over several centuries.  Many assessments of gentrification in places like Detroit capture an uneasiness that the city is being “revitalized” by a mostly White educated “creative class” (to use Richard Florida’s well-known term) or “millenials.”  Salon circumspectly characterized Detroit and similarly declining Rust Belt cities as ideal landing points for otherwise disaffected and marginalized 20- and 30-somethings in a movement sometimes referred to as “Rust Belt chic.”  In July, 2011 the New York Times reported optimistically about the stream of young entrepreneurs, artists, and associated hipsters who have flowed into Detroit peopling abandoned neighborhoods with trendy business districts, urban farms, and an arts community.  Good News reported that much of this newly established community is sensitive to its privileges, committed to serving the whole community, and not consciously driven to displace former residents or set up new divides (compare the Guernica piece “Food among the Ruins” on urban farming in Detroit).  Nevertheless, many of these businesses and social networks remain divided across race and class lines, and some locals are never going to be baristas, art aficionados, or part of the IT workforce.

This Gary, Indiana church sits in the heart of the Midwestern “Rust Belt.” (courtesy Paul J.S.)

At least obliquely the porn metaphor suggests the covert excitement of viewing ruins from the privileged standpoint of the bourgeois, and in this respect it borrows from a long-established tradition of slum tourism by White bourgeois that swept Europe and America in the late 19th century.  In 1899, for instance, Scottish traveler William Archer’s America To-Day concluded that New York’s “slums have a Southern air about them, a variety of contour and colour—in some aspects one might almost say a gaiety. … For one thing, the ubiquitous balconies and fire escapes serve of themselves to break the monotony of line, and lend, as it were, a peculiar texture to the scene; to say nothing of the opportunities they afford for the display of multifarious shreds and patches of colour.  Then the houses themselves are often brightly, not to say loudly, painted; so that in the clear, sparkling atmosphere characteristic of New York, the most squalid slum puts on a many-coloured Southern aspect.”  This reduction of impoverishment to an aesthetic was its own pornographic gaze, but for some contemporary critics it shares with “ruin porn” the very removal of living people from the description of cities whose impoverishment and abandonment are driven by a complex amalgam of classist, racist, and corporate self-interests.

Archer’s contemporaries included many activists intent on changing everyday life for impoverished people, and they did create consequential change using tools that were not radically distinct from the contemporary documentors of abandonment.  Jacob Riis’ landmark 1890 study How The Other Half Lives was a photographic survey of New York tenements that aspired to use jarring images to motivate reform, and numerous other social science studies (all admittedly with their own class and racist baggage) used images to emotionally move the state and citizens of privilege into action.   There is something powerful about an image of a contemporary ruin that compels many observers to question how monumental buildings and vast swaths of cities were systematically and intentionally abandoned, but to reduce it simply to “landscape photography” is at best naïve and at worst socially reprehensible.  Matthew Christopher has been among the most prolific and reflective of the abandonment photographers, and he likens abandoned buildings to spaces of death in which the collective heritage of myriad people—those who worked in a factory, attended a school, were baptized in a church—are effaced.

There is an undeniably fascinating aesthetic to abandoned amusement park images like this one from Spreepark in Berlin (courtesy CxOxS)

The aesthetics and politics of ruination are different in different sorts of spaces, including churches, Cold War missile ranges, industrial spaces, shopping malls, and fallout shelters.  For instance, many ruin artists flock to amusement parks, which evoke past innocence and provide all sorts of compelling aesthetic devices like decaying rides, fiberglass figures or animatronic John Waynes overtaken by nature.  Examples include Michael John Grist’s fascinating photo-logue of abandoned Japanese parks, many with American themes; Catherine Hyland’s series on the never-completed Wonderland amusement park in Chenzhuang Village, China (which also includes a video of the park); Buzzfeed’s photographs of the Wichita park Joyland; Environmental Graffiti’s pictures of Michael Jackson’s Neverland; or WebUrbanist’s photo survey of six abandoned parks.  On the other hand, Buzzfeed’s tour of the Six Flags New Orleans park abandoned after Hurricane Katrina (which also has a few YouTube videos) is potentially a somewhat more complicated picture of abandonment that could very cleverly be linked to an ambitious narrative.  After Katrina rendered nearly the whole of the park a loss in 2005, Six Flags wanted to abandon its 75-year lease, and New Orleans sued the park for $3 million in 2009 and ordered them to vacate the lease.  In March, 2012 plans were announced to turn the site in an upscale outlet mall, though these remain unresolved as the admittedly aesthetically haunting park continues to rot in place.  Beyond those compelling aesthetics, Six Flags New Orleans could be interpreted as an abandonment narrative involving the forces of nature, poor planning (drainage pumps failed in the storm, and the park was long one of the least profitable of all the Six Flags parks), and a corporation forsaking its own legal responsibilities (though Six Flags filed for bankruptcy and made a cash payment to New Orleans).

The interior of the Buzludzha Monument today (courtesy MK13Y)

Overtly political spaces present their own issues of abandonment. For instance, the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria is an astounding concrete monument placed atop a mountain in 1981 to honor communism, but the fall of communism left the monument to decay.  The site is inevitably politicized by allowing it to ruin, which compels us to ask how the absence of preservation or intentional effacement of it constitutes a different sort of abandonment, but the truly compelling aesthetics of an ideologically inelegant modernist monument allowed to be re-taken by nature make analysis of the site and preservation strategy challenging.

Buzludzha viewed from the base of the mountain (courtesy Pavel Tcholakov)

These are completely archaeological questions, of course, but there are not all that many scholars focusing on the confluence of contemporary materiality, abandonment, and aesthetics.  The most interesting archaeological project examining these issues is Ruin Memories.  Ruin Memories examines “a ruined landscape of derelict factories, closed shopping malls, overgrown bunkers and redundant mining towns; a ghostly world of decaying modern debris normally left out of academic concerns and conventional histories,” with case studies drawn from northern Europe, Russia, Equatorial Guinea, and the US.  Their scholarship plumbs precisely what is framed as “waste” in contemporary society in discourses like heritage that value certain sorts of preservation yet place other materiality in a class of “waste.” The ruins of modernity in cities like Detroit are problematic symbols that risk illuminating the failures of modernity and replacing the pristine and aesthetic historical monument with neglected, vandalized, and unsightly ruins.   We certainly go to museums to view the material remnants of other cultures and moments without the charge of engaging in a pornographic gaze, so it is interesting that the most prosaic and familiar material decay around us becomes social and politically charged when we view it and begin to think about it.  The scholars in the Ruin Memories project focus on sites whose materiality is what Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal refers to as “too recent, conflicting and repulsive” to be part of collective memory.  Many of these ruins remain largely outside our conscious apprehension in a state they refer to in a study of a Russian mining town as “inconspicuous familiarity” despite being the fabric of our everyday material experience, so much of their research complicates what scholars take as meaningful materiality and probes how archaeology expresses the fundamentally inexpressible meanings of material things.  Much of their work assertively borrows from photography and uses aesthetic representation of things and ruins to expand archaeologists’ normative narratives about things that tend to lapse into description and particularism and skirt the complicated meanings of materiality.

The aesthetic ruins of modernity in Taiwan (courtesy netman)

There is tremendous archaeological potential to develop reflective narratives about modernity that weave the decaying ruins of contemporary cities or industrial sites to a complex range of social, political, racist, and class factors that would illuminate how archaeologists, states, and communities value spaces, heritage, and things.  It is not all that likely that contract archaeology firms will soon be retained to produce such scholarship, and its equally unlikely that local governments will begin to see old buildings as something other than preservation problems or shallowly defined blight, but the work has the potential to provide interesting illumination of how we value our collective heritage and place.  We should obey our own fascination with and curiosity in these old spaces—the decayed amusement parks, ruined factories, asylums overtaken by nature—and accept that there is something far more consequential in that curiosity than simply compelling aesthetics.  If “ruin porn” helps us see those spaces in new ways, then photography, narratives, and material analysis might collectively provide us an exceptionally powerful way to interpret such places and dissect the concrete social and material forces that create abandonment and ruination.

References and links

There are quite a few “Ruin Porn” boards on Pinterest and tons of pinterest images tagged “Ruin Porn”.  Also see the AbandonedPorn reddit for numerous images.  If you really hate “ruin porn” and want to defend Detroit’s honor, Love it to Death apparel actually has a pretty clever t-shirt for you.

Elin Andreassen, Hein B. Bjerck, and Bjørnar Olsen (2010) Persistent Memories: Pyramiden – A Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic Tapir Academic Press

William Archer (1899) America To-Day, Observations and Reflections. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

John Patrick Leary (2011) “Detroitism” January 15 Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics may be the single most prescient analysis of “ruin porn”

Matthew Christopher (2012) Abandoned America is one of the most expansive and thoughtful blogs by an artist linked to “ruin porn,” however much he dislikes the term

Chris Mottalini (2012) After You Left, They Took it Apart (Demolished Paul Rudolph Homes) is a compelling preservation and artistic study of a series of Paul Rudolph modernist homes in abandonment that were ultimately razed.

Jacob A. Riis (1890) How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York.  Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Image references (all images Creative Commons License non-commercial and unmodified)

Jeremy Blakeslee image Michigan Central Station http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jblakesleemichigancentral.jpg See his web page for a host of abandonment images reaching well beyond ruined urban cores alone.

Calamity_hane image Detroit home http://www.flickr.com/photos/calamity_hane/5225733822/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Chad and Steph image Michigan Central Station http://www.flickr.com/photos/chadlewis/6083710267/

CxOxS image Berlin amusement park http://www.flickr.com/photos/cxoxs/1075209699/

M31KY image Buzludzha Monument http://www.flickr.com/photos/m1k3y/5186925202/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Netman image Taiwan beachfront http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmx/2475997226/sizes/z/in/photostream/

Paul J.S. image Gary, Indiana http://www.flickr.com/photos/61066736@N00/6516003439/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Pavel Tchlokaov image Buzludzha http://www.flickr.com/photos/pavel/5264178925/sizes/l/in/photostream/

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Posted on August 19, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. Excellent and thoughtful essay, Dr. Mullins! My thinking on this has also been influenced by Neil Cosson’s comments comparing Ruin Porn to the allegorical images of ruined castles and buildings in the 18th century European art and decorative arts. He posits that ruin porn is the same process of establishing a symbolic distinction between the period of economic decline and the now, or perhaps objectifying the people-less places of the decline, which allows members of the “now” to write off these communities and places as having ended the cycles of civilization. I think he means to say that having ruin porn allows the community to distinguish themselves as being a “post-industrial” society which does not actually exist.

    Cossons, Neil. 2007. Industrial Archaeology: the Challenge of the Evidence. _The Antiquaries Journal_ 87:1-52.

  2. Reblogged this on lukebennett13 and commented:
    The politics and archaeology of ‘ruin porn’ by Paul Mullins (fascinating)

  3. James E. Snead

    I’m with Tim – there’s a lot of cultural history here that would enrich the discussion of ruination and let us get away from the vile term “porn,” particularly the implication of prurience. It might be said that gazing upon ruins has been central to the western vision since the Renaissance – all those ruins in the background of Itallanate landscapes weren’t simply there for color. A central argument in this canon was made by the Comte de Volney in “The Ruins” (1798), which applied the metaphor to the rise and fall of empires. What is perhaps more interesting is the anguish expressed on this topic – a modernist current which insists that anything less than steady progress toward perfection is aberrant, or that our “inaction” in the face of ruination is morally decadent – when we’ve been doing this since Attila.

    • James, Quite a few folks made the same suggestion that to some extent ruination is a process we might find in nearly every complex society, so there may be some cool archaeological project there somewhere. Adding the notion that this is a contradiction within modernity is actually a pretty interesting and complicated argument about the tensions between progress and ruination that pushes this a little further and in somewhat more sophisticated ways.

  4. A great piece – packed with insight. Interested readers might also like to check out the following if not already aware:

    High, S. & Lewis, D.W. (2007) ‘Corporate Wasteland – the landscape and memory of deindustrialisation’, ILR Press, Ithica. In particular their chapter (pp. 41-64) entitled: “Take only pictures and leave only footprints; urban exploration and the aesthetics of deindustrialisation.”

    Steinmetz, G. (2010) “Colonial melacholy and Fordist nostalgia: the ruinscapes of Namibia and Detroit” (pp. 294-320) in Hell, J. & Schonle, A. ‘Ruins of Modernity’, Duke University Press, Durham.

  5. For me, the problem with “ruin porn” is that it leaves out people and local history. Photographers tend to treat the ruins generically, finding in them sublime symbols of national decline and waste. But those who knew the sites when they were in operation (i.e. workers, parishioners, neighbors) would perhaps offer more specific and diverse interpretations.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that the photographers and explorers are adding new layers of history and significance to the buildings they visit. That church in Gary is not a church anymore so much as it is an famous urban exploration spot.

    I’m quite interested in this topic — in fact, for the next academic year, I’ll be studying ruins and collective memory in Quebec!

    • That is a fabulous topic, and especially interesting in Quebec. There are a lot of photographers labeled as “ruin porn” that are really reflective and have genuine activist politics, but their images alone sometimes paint their projects in a light that some observers consider unflattering.

  6. I am both a some-what reluctant historian and an urban explorer. I began photographing long standing ruins in my community about two years ago and blogging about the history behind these places….I’ve focused on an abandoned hotel, a long abandoned zoo & one that was recently left to sit vacant, a coal breaker , a ghost town, a drive-in, and two very old fashioned, community-centric amusement parks…

    What draws me into doing so is a mixture of curiosity, a love of history, a drive to capture the human element left behind in these places where people lived, worked, played or worshipped and also the awe of witnessing how nature always reclaims what man leaves behind….
    As an urban explorer (a person who explores abandonments), I am part of the community that feels compelled to document these ruins…..from a historical perspective it is important to do so….it’s part of the history of these locations and our collective history as human beings. I know one woman who focuses on photographing abandoned mental hospitals and she does so for several reasons….people were often just locked away and forgotten, yet these structures are still standing today, where you can find personal belongings that were left behind. She’s trying to give those people a voice while striving to document the evolution of the way that our society has treated those who are mentally ill.

    Many people who explore cities like Detroit say that they do so to show how wasteful our society can be…they will often talk about how they will hear that schools in that area are struggling to serve students without necessary supplies and yet a few blocks away from an at-risk school district, an abandoned school will be sitting with unused boxes full of books, art supplies, computers and athletic equipment…

    One building of historical significance in my own community was left standing in a state of condemnation and ruin after a failed preservation attempt. While our community was hotly debating about what to do with the structure–continue to strive for preservation or just demolish it and start over–I felt the need to get inside to document what was actually there in order to make a more informed decision about where I stood personally on the issue. I wrote a blog post attempting to capture the issue from the building’s point of view:

    http://cherisundra.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/hotel-sterling-the-undead-days-part-1/

    Sometimes these explorers are almost like archeologists of the industrial decline of America. I had the chance to go through an abandoned lace factory where the employees were let go mid-shift in 2002 and what remained behind was a ghost-like museum of lace-making complete with employee belongings and lace left at mid production:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cheri_sundra/sets/72157626489415151/

    I love to photograph a ghost town from 1924 that has been left standing as a monument to the “company housing” living arrangements that were experienced by the people who worked in and were exploited by the local coal mines that used to dominate the area:

    http://cherisundra.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/hello-world/

    And it’s exciting to go there today….people have found a new, underground purpose for this location. There is something amazing about a place that is left to disappear into history that creates a second life for itself:

    http://cherisundra.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/spontaneous-acts-of-art-concrete-city-ruins/

    I think that over all, as a community, urban explorers are vastly misunderstood and our motives are greatly underestimated….

    • Cheri, Thanks for the reflective thoughts and the links to the fabulous images. I suspect that many of the people caricatured as “ruin porn” are thoughtful and committed preservationists whose work gets stereotyped by observers unwilling or unable to fathom the complexities of abandonment and the social and material processes still with us that produce these landscapes. Your images are fabulous but very sad, those are wonderful buildings. I would never deny my own fascination with these spaces or the power of images taken in such places, I think they are just most powerful when they come with or encourage a community commentary on preservation and abandonment.

  7. Reblogged this on Brent Fortenberry's Research Pages and commented:
    A great post by Paul Mullins on ruination and contemporary archaeology.

  8. Paul – thanks again for this stimulating essay. Your holding out for a positive dimension to some aspects of ‘ruin porn’ practice has got me thinking.

    In the latest instalment of my project looking at the myriad material and symbolic apropriations of abandoned bunkers, I’ve reappraised a visit to Churchill’s derelict ‘fall-back’ bunker in this light. In my essay I try to balance High & Lewis’ pessimism with Bradley Garrett’s optimism about the value of subjective, sensory ruin-crawling:

    http://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/new-uses-for-old-bunkers-22-doing-ruin-porn-in-churchills-other-bunker/

  9. Reblogged this on Author Sean T. Smith and commented:
    Some great post apocalyptic art work, and some in-depth analysis as well.

  10. Reblogged this on … a decent respect to the opinions of mankind and commented:
    The last part of this blog post is particularly relevant.

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