On Ruin Porn

I recently discovered the photography of Camilo Jose Vergara, who has been documenting the transformation of American cities – especially those in decline – for decades. His work is not voyeuristic like “ruin porn.” It is contemplative and sincere. In the rust belt, he has focused on Gary, Chicago, and Detroit. His other work spans the country, and I especially enjoyed his photographs from Old New York. His website has a great interface and I highly recommend browsing through it.

Vergara’s work came to my attention while reading Mark Binelli’s 2012 book Detroit City is the Place to Be, which I plan to review here soon (in short: it’s excellent). Binelli treats the topic of ruin pornography while discussing the migration of artists, journalists, and everyday bohemians to depression-struck Detroit, where they derive inspiration and material from the ruins of the city. Hanging around Cleveland, I’m already familiar with the ruin porn trend. And during my travels around the state, I have found myself taking my own pictures of decline, like this series of photographs, three from a half-demolished acme plant in Toledo and another two from downtown Youngstown. When facing sights such as these, embodying an utterly oxymoronic grand destitution, it is hard to resist the compulsion to capture that contradiction. One crumbling building can speak simultaneously to past, present, and future. 

But there is a thin line between appreciation and exploitation. I’m generally concerned with the meaning of the decline, and not at all with selling or even publicizing the product (I’m a writer, not a photographer). So I like to think I don’t cross over that threshold. Still, it is a question I have grappled with personally, and that’s one of the reasons I appreciated Binelli’s thoughtful treatment of the issue in his book. Here’s Binelli on ruin porn from Detroit City is the Place to Be: 

“In Detroit, you can’t talk aesthetics without talking ruin porn, a term that had recently begun circulating in the city. Detroiters, understandably, could get quite touchy about the way descriptions and photographs of ruined buildings had become the favorite Midwestern souvenirs of visiting reporters. . . .

“Ruin porn was generally assessed the same way as the other kind, with you-know-it-when-you-see-it subjectivity. Everyone seemed to agree that Camilo Vergara’s work was not ruin pornography, though he’d arguably been the Hefner of the genre. . . .

“Photojournalists, on the other hand, were almost universally considered creeps pandering to a sticky-fingered Internet slide-show demographic. To some extent the critique had been just: as with stories about misbehaving teenage starlets, editorial love of Detroit came with obvious exploitative commercial reward: a link of a titillating shot of Detroit’s architectural dishabille could always be counted to rise to the top of your website’s ‘most emailed’ lists, which was, of course, the bottom line.

“At the same time, it wasn’t fair to automatically condemn all such photography. As often as portraits of the city’s ruins might be distorted and sensationalized, blanket condemnations felt equally disingenuous. Ignoring the blight altogether would have been reportorial malpractice akin to writing a travel piece about Malibu and failing to mention the Pacific Ocean.”

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4 thoughts on “On Ruin Porn

  1. Pingback: Books and Bankruptcy: Detroit City Is the Place to Be | As Ohio Goes

    1. rbkhoury Post author

      Ed,

      I’m so sorry for the late reply. I have been moving, from Cleveland to Chicago. And I’m more sorry to say that I left the Binelli book back home in Cleveland so cannot check on the page numbers for you. Thanks for reading.

      Reply

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