Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ruin Nation: Detroit, Winnipeg, And Other Troubled States Of Mind

John Patrick Leary, a Detroit native, deconstructs the "ruin porn" that captivates the imaginations of so many outsiders — including my own. Noreen Malone, a New Yorker, is more blunt: "Stop slobbering over abandoned cityscapes!"

While Leary and Malone do make valid points about the superficial appeal of "ruin porn," their jeremiads do nothing to halt my prurient poring over the salacious photos they decry. Until there's a 12-step-recovery program for poor souls like me, photographs of ruin will continue to nudge my thoughts in all sorts of directions, some of them troubling, others potentially useful. And Detroit is neither unique nor alone in its state of Ruin Nation: Winnipeg qualifies just as easily. So does the village I currently reside in. I believe any photographer with a little sand in 'em could — and should — have a field day in every town in the atlas.

And why not? How we face the inevitability of decline and death is a common mark of wisdom, or the lack thereof. As for the photos on offer, I've already noted that the older and more arcane the structure, the more aesthetic interest it generates. Surely this says something important about our current aesthetic. Its relative instability coupled with its grievous inability to erode fittingly into the biosphere are just two characteristics that suggest our last 100 years of building activity have been, at best, a halting transition toward an architectural modality that better suits our species.

So do read and consider what these people have to say. But keep those pictures coming — and don't stop watching.


Su said...

I found those today, and saved several pictures from the same place. I love the piano one... such decrepitude!

Whisky Prajer said...

Such fabulous, grand old buildings, no? I'd love nothing more than to enjoy them in their formerly glorious state, but even in their decrepitude they're magnificent.

paul bowman said...

Don't stop watching! I agree. Maybe it's published as porn, but it doesn't have to be porn to the thoughtful viewer by any means. (Which is true to some extent even for porn proper, I suppose.)

Its relative instability coupled with its grievous inability to erode fittingly into the biosphere are just two characteristics that suggest our last 100 years of building activity have been, at best, a halting transition toward an architectural modality that better suits our species. — A lot to say for one sentence. But I'm with you all the way here, I think.

paul bowman said...

"They do not come for the abandoned." — I get the guy's concern, but I doubt this works out so simply for most of us. Though people aren't subjects in the photos, on some fundamental level I think it's a human connection the ordinary viewer must make. Built environment is about people — and not in a one-dimensional way, nor only for an architecturally literate or sensitized few. The effect of these images isn't numbing.

Would like to think about this further. No time right now, unfortunately.

Whisky Prajer said...

Actually, I would love a guided tour through abandoned Detroit -- and would make the drive in a Detroit Minute. Doubtless if such a tour ever commercially viable, it would further inflame Leary's indignation.

"Alas, a photograph can tell us little about the city’s real estate industry and the state’s cheaply-bought politicians" -- I'm having difficulty coming to grips with Leary's chief peeve, but I think this statement probably sits closest to the source of his frustration. The photographers "exploit" the situation without significantly addressing the causes and possible solutions to the ongoing decrepitude. That's a fairly common kvetch from the righteous-minded (including myself): "Sure, you point out the problems. But what are you doing about a solution?" I'd counter that the photographs are vastly preferable to their complete absence and contribute to the "solution" by keeping the problem visible and alive in a larger public imagination.

Also this: I hope these images inspire viewers to engage in local renewal. We might not be able to do anything about Detroit, but we ought to at least try to come to grips with the challenges in our immediate communities. (Which, to be fair, Leary does allude to.)

Cowtown Pattie said...

Great post, WP! A man after my own junk-loving heart.

While we don't have as many of the deserted ruined grand architectural buildings of other states/countries, Texas does have hunnerds of small tonws in decline or outright abandonment.

"Ringling, Ringling...It's a dying little town."(Any Jimmy Buffett fans?)

And I am fascinated by detritus from the past inhabitants of these windy,lonesome places.

If only that old rusted 1938 Ford truck hidden fender deep in prairie grass could talk...

homeinarizona said...

Like you, I enjoy the wabi-sabi effects of aging and imperfection. My blog has featured stuff like this for several years. Half the fun is in exploring, then editing the photos. Sharing them with kindred spirits who sense some beauty and poetry in ugliness provides the other half.

Sam said...

It isn't as if the "ruins" suddenly appeared in the last few years that Detroit has become the tragic symbol that it is for a country in recession.
Wherever there is civilization there will be ruins. That's the way it is. Buildings should not be off limits to photographers just because of some topical opinions. Especially considering that many of these ruins have been sitting there for a long long time. They were there in the 90s when the economy was strong, and they are there still as the economy suffers. People settle and then move. We build new buildings instead of maintaining old ones, sadly. Populations grow and shrink. I don't see what the problem is in documenting these changes.

Places that look interesting ask to be shot. If fascinating buildings aren't getting preserved physically, it's worthwhile to get them on film before they are torn down.