Dockside, Aberdeen WA 2010
photo by Sean Bentley

My wife recently shared this link on Facebook: Sustainable Cities Collective. In the article, and the others it links to, is a discussion of the moral validity of photographing contemporary ruins  —  a “genre” which apparently has acquired the dubious sobriquet “Ruin Porn.”

As a large portion of my work documents what I see as the evocative beauty of urban ruins, particularly American ones, as well as "making lemonade" of an urban landscape that many consider (I hesitate to say "see") as simply ugly, I’m fairly distressed by the notion of art as pornography.  It seems to issue from (as Spiro Agnew might once have said) primarily the pompous pens of politically correct professors. Below are a few representative paragraphs.

I’d love to get some feedback from my followers: Is it valid to portray the aesthetic value of derelict buildings without pedantically addressing social causes and solutions? Is it nihilistic or beatific? Can't a photograph work like a poem  —  which as W. H. Auden posits, "makes nothing happen"  —  by relying on the viewer's powers of association to "put the pieces together"?

photo by Sean Bentley

From “Shrinking Cities: The Forgetting Machine” by Jason King

The idea of Detroit as a [sic] industrial powerhouse declining into a bastion of cliched ruin-porn makes it a [sic] much talked about as a cultural touchstone of the shrunken city phenomenon of the U.S. ...The statements made by the photographs... do not capture the essential rise and fall of Detroit, but seem to bask in the 'dead zone' shivering aesthetic of destruction....

From The Forgetting Machine: Notes Toward a History of Detroit by Jerry Herron

“I'm not just photographing derelict buildings," [photographer Andrew] Moore told an interviewer from the Detroit News, “I’m looking for beauty and their poetic, or metaphorical, meaning.” [Michael Hodges, “Opportunistic Art,” Detroit News, 1 July 2010, B1.]

...And that’s where the crucial transformation happens, with the museum conferring the status of art upon work that might otherwise be construed as photo-journalistic documentary. John Berger has referred to this process as “mystification.” [Berger says] “Fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. Cultural mystification of the past entails a double loss. Works of art are made unnecessarily remote. And the past offers us fewer conclusions to complete in action.” [John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972]

That is precisely the point of Moore’s work — to mystify into “poetic” inconsequence and remoteness the past that is represented by Detroit, and along with it the conclusions we might draw as a result. Those otherwise troubling conclusions, and the actions that might follow from them — actions undertaken in the name of shared responsibility — are now translated into matters of taste and technique. A sense of “bogus religiosity,” to use another of Berger’s terms, pervades the images; action is foreclosed, except for the connoisseur-like contemplations of the solitary spectator, who is freed to look at the worst, without any necessity of further exertion. The "naked" facts of Detroit, in all their frightening and accusatory detail, are turned into museum-piece "nudes," spot-lit on the gallery walls; they're titillating perhaps, but also unreal, just like a centerfold image is unreal; and the more gorgeous, the better.

...The images fail to capture the complex logic that links creation and destruction necessarily together — in Detroit and in America. Marchand and Meffre reduce everything they encounter to a dead zone of already-seen sights; they deploy a visual idiom that has all the wit and insight of a post-mortem Polaroid, with the same dismal color palette, and the now-to-be expected prohibition against any human being ever entering the frame. ...Perhaps the clich√©-propagating idiom of ruin porn is so powerful that it simply takes over, duping otherwise intelligent artists into a tedious banality that not even the volume's pretentious scale and price can conceal.

Central District, Seattle
photo by Sean Bentley

from Detroitism by John Patrick Leary

...So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.  ...[O]ther photos tend towards overwrought melodrama, like the photograph of an abandoned nursing home tagged with a spray-painted slogan, “God Has Left Detroit.” Moore leans on the compositional tactic of ironic juxtaposition, an old standby of documentary city photography since at least the days of Robert Frank and Helen Levitt. ...The irony is obvious, heavy-handedly so, yet the photographer’s meaning is less clear.

Photo by Andrew Moore

... In requisitioning the ruin’s aura of historical pathos, ruin photos suggest a vanquished, even glorious past but, like the ruins themselves, present no way to understand our own relationship to the decline we are seeing. After all, this is not Rome or Greece, vanished civilizations; these ruins are our own, and the society they indict is ours as well. As a purely aesthetic object, even with the best intentions, ruin photography cannot help but exploit a city’s misery; but as political documents on their own, they have little new to tell us.

... Taken together, all the images of the ruined city become fragments of stories told so often about Detroit that they are at the same time instantly familiar and utterly vague, like a dimly remembered episode from childhood or a vivid dream whose storyline we can’t quite remember in the morning: Murder city! Unemployment! Drugs! White flight! Crime! Because the ironic appeal of modern ruins lies in the archaeological fantasy of discovery combined with the banality of what is discovered—a nineteen-eighties dentist’s office is not implicitly fascinating for anyone who inhabited one in its intact state—a ruin photograph succeeds in providing the details of a familiar story whose major plot points we can’t piece together.

from What Separates Ruin Porn from Important Documentary Photography?  by Sean Posey

One of the best [sic] criticisms of photographs of abandonment, especially those made by photojournalists, is the failure to include people who live in these areas. There are still 700,000 plus people in Detroit, most of whom are African American. Their invisibility in photographic documentations is directly related to their invisibility in policy circles, or in discussions of urban revitalization. In a way, accentuating the lack of people leads to notions that no one lives in these areas. Ruins become more about the past and what once was, instead of the present. ...Photography is of course inherently problematic even outside the realm of urban exploration. Susan Sontag’s eloquent and groundbreaking book, On Photography ... points out photography as a medium often fixates on the very beautiful, the very ugly and monstrous, the beautifully ugly, and the beautifully monstrous. Photographs of decay are a classic example. This by itself further blurs the line between documentation, art, and straight up exploitation.
Defunct motel, Snoqualmie WA
photo by Sean Bentley

from The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’ by David Cambell

Are photographs of suffering a threat to empathy? Some are, and some are not, but we need to know a lot more about how people actually respond to images before we can offer definitive conclusions. What if, rather than being emotionally exhausted, any lack of empathy comes from people deciding they just don’t want to know about atrocity regardless of the nature of the available pictures? There is much more thought to be undertaken around these issues, but one thing is clear – labelling everything ‘porn’ is not helping.

Well, I'll certainly agree with the last statement!


  1. I came here for your Sepia Saturday post but found this post so interesting I'd like to add my two cents. Though I'd never heard the term "ruin porn", I have seen many of these photo essays and can understand the dilemma. Is a photo of the Pyramids or the Acropolis any different than one of Detroit's urban decay? Can a photo be appreciated for its artistic composition when its subject has been removed from any social or historical context?

    I think it is when an image is exploited for commercial purposes that it becomes pornographic. For example, selling Detroit trucks and cars with industrial grunge in the background. On the other hand using photos of urban and industrial decline to document the changes of recession, is to focus the viewer to use their imagination and see the ghosts in the ghost town.

  2. I'm from Detroit and on visits back have taken my share of "ruin photographs". I didn't know they were a genre. Once I went around to all the places I'd lived and that my parents and grandparents had lived in Detroit and it could have been a ruin documentary in itself. If there are people in the photographs or if there are not, my old neighborhoods in inner city Detroit are depressing. It looks like a war zone. The photographs are meaningful to me because I have a history there. That old deserted school down the street from the old wrecked factories on the East side is the elementary school my mother attended. The overgrown lot in the other direction is where my grandparents house is. If I didn't have this personal connection I would, perhaps see it differently. I don't understand the rage against the photographers. They didn't destroy Detroit. Just thinking about Detroit tires me out. Hope this makes some sense to the discussion.