Is 'Ruin Porn' Art or Journalism?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 - 08:13 AM

Model T Headquarters, Highland Park (Andrew Moore)

As long as we've had cameras, we've had “ruin porn.” It's the deliberate effort to publish images of a city or a region that sensationalize devastation, while choosing not to print photos of beautiful landscapes or majestic architecture.  Residents of New Orleans complain that reporters fly into Louis Armstrong International Airport and ask their guides to show them the best examples of ruined neighborhoods and flood damage. 

In an article from Vice UK, Thomas Morton writes about a "French filmmaker who came to Detroit to shoot a documentary about all the deer and pheasants and other wildlife that have been returning to the city. After several days without seeing a wild one he had to be talked out of renting a trained fox to run through the streets for the camera."

And Morton quotes photographer James Griffioen talking about visiting reporters, "Time magazine sent a 24-year-old guy to Detroit. They wouldn’t let him rent a car, so he was dropped off in a cab downtown. He’s there for six hours and he’s supposed to write a feature article on Detroit. For Time. He had a meeting with the mayor in the morning, the mayor stood him up, then he had a meeting with me, and that was it."

We talked to Andrew Moore this morning whose beautiful photos of abandoned buildings and desolate urban landscapes in Detroit are currently on display in an exhibit at the Akron Art Museum.  The exhibit has been accused of pandering to the fascination with “ruin porn.”  An article in The Detroit News says, "Talk to city and suburban residents alike, and it won't be long before someone tells you this constitutes exploitation, just as shots of streams full of old washing machines stereotype Appalachia."  But the artist argues, I think convincingly, that art is judged by a different standard than photojournalism.  He is creating an emotional picture, he says, not a photo of record.

And that's really the problem with “ruin porn” in our newspapers, magazines, and documentaries.  Taking a photo of an abandoned lot to illustrate a report about economic malaise is fine.  It crosses the line when the photographer purposely crops out the thriving shopping center on the left or the manicured lawn of a home on the right.  Reports in newspapers about the collapse of the auto industry and its devastating effects on Detroit's economy are often accompanied by images of the abandoned Michigan Central Depot.  The train station is a gorgeous ruin, no doubt, but it was shut down in the 1980's and can't be used as even an implied example of the current economic conditions in the city.  As Thomas Morton points out, reporters often pair stories about the struggling Big Three with photos of the Packard Auto Plant in east Detroit.  The problem?  That plant closed in 1956, when the American automakers were still thriving.

As far as I'm concerned, artists have the freedom to take and edit photos however they choose; photojournalists, on the other hand, do not have that right.  When it is part of a report, the images must be as truthful and accurate as the writing, and they can't be a reflection of the photographer's personal vision.  Make it a beautiful picture, but make it honest.

In his wonderful web essay on Detroit and New Orleans called "The Anatomy of Ruins," Bryan Finoki writes, "Ruin porn is a war on memory, dislocating the political dynamics of ruin in favor of momentary sensations and lurid plots. The state of ruin is seen as exactly that: a condition rather than a continually unfolding process. In fact, ruins evolve over time; they are the result of construction as much as of destruction; they are forms that fluctuate as other processes transform the landscape."  Photos of decay are like the hyperbolic train wreck that we "can't look away from."  Seeing ruined buildings in Detroit satisfies readers because it's what they expect to see.  But it's not Detroit.  Let the artists editorialize their photos.  If you are a journalist of any kind, tell the truth.

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Comments [3]

Mike from Rust Belt, USA

"Ruin porn" is a ridiculous term, though it is effectively derogatory. It would be equally ridiculous to call a landscape photographer a "tree porn" shooter.

Photography has always been a reflection of the bias of the photographer because no photography can capture everything exactly as it existed in front of the lens. Choices are made to tell a story. This is the case with war photography, with wedding photography, and with urban/street photography. Shoot in B&W or color? It makes a difference. Shoot square format or rectangular? Wide angle or telephoto? These are choices that make a difference, regardless of what the subject matter is.

Jul. 15 2010 09:23 AM
Constance Bodurow from Detroit, MI USA

Ms. Headlee: I understand Hockenberry's superficial treatment of this topic, but you are a Detroiter -- shame on you! How could you feature yet another obvious example of the media, art + design world's morbid fascination with Detroit? That is my term for it and I am sticking to it! At very least, you could have countered your guests' self-serving rationalizations and self promotion with an intelligent local voice who would have scoffed at the comparisons being made and quickly pointed out that the Acropolis is photographed for its significance to the arc of human civilization, not because the Greeks abandoned it and left it to deteriorate (!). Indeed, the so called "ruins" to which your guests referred are among the most valued and protected built form in the world! And this is more than "telling the truth" as you state in your blog post. What I find most disappointing is that artists are not willing to take ownership of the embedded editorial content in these superficial images and descriptions of place. The message is as subtle as a baseball bat to the head: Detroit is dead (dying) or at very least decomposing, and that, from a strictly formal point of view, is titillating and generates attention. As a designer, I can appreciate their formalist, dispassionate commentary. I am no apologist for the decades of failed leadership from every sector in our region - corporate, public, institutional. But as a resident of Detroit, I continue to hope we have seen the last of this morbid fascination with our struggling city (haven't you been to dyspathy.com and seen the 'Assignment Detroit' drinking game?). We don't need yet another exhibit or book or article (print or radio) elevating the devastation. What we need from smart, creative people who come to town is vision, long term engagement (no, sorry, 3 months does not count!) and sustainable solutions for the residents who - out of choice or necessity - remain.

Jul. 06 2010 05:43 PM
Constance Bodurow from Detroit, MI USA

Ms. Headlee: I understand Hockenberry's superficial treatment of this topic, but you are a Detroiter -- shame on you! How could you feature yet another obvious example of the media, art + design world's morbid fascination with Detroit? That is my term for it and I am sticking to it! At very least, you could have countered your guests' self-serving rationalizations and self promotion with an intelligent local voice who would have scoffed at the comparisons being made and quickly pointed out that the Acropolis is photographed for its significance to the arc of human civilization, not because the Greeks abandoned it and left it to deteriorate (!). Indeed, the so called "ruins" to which your guests referred are among the most valued and protected built form in the world! And this is more than "telling the truth" as you state in your blog post. What I find most disappointing is that artists are not willing to take ownership of the embedded editorial content in these superficial images and descriptions of place. The message is as subtle as a baseball bat to the head: Detroit is dead (dying) or at very least decomposing, and that, from a strictly formal point of view, is titillating and generates attention. As a designer, I can appreciate their formalist, dispassionate commentary. I am no apologist for the decades of failed leadership from every sector in our region - corporate, public, institutional. But as a resident of Detroit, I continue to hope we have seen the last of this morbid fascination with our struggling city (haven't you been to dyspathy.com and seen the 'Assignment Detroit' drinking game?). We don't need yet another exhibit or book or article (print or radio) elevating the devastation. What we need from smart, creative people who come to town is vision, long term engagement (no, sorry, 3 months does not count!) and sustainable solutions for the residents who - out of choice or necessity - remain.

Jul. 06 2010 05:42 PM

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