I heard another photographer of ruin/decay/abandonment interviewed on the local NPR affiliate this morning. The term “ruinporn” came up quickly in a question from the host. The guest (I believe he goes by Stormdog on Flickr), was thoughtful in responding, but it was a variant of the same argument I’ve heard urbexers use many times now. It goes something like this: urban photography can be distinguished from ruinporn by its ultimate aim. Is the photographer being merely exploitative, or is he or she trying to bring attention to and start a discussion about the buildings being photographed? Is accessing a site just another notch in the belt, or does it serve some larger purpose? If the ultimate aim is to fetishize destruction, then the work is ruinporn.
This line of reasoning is misleading at best, and a mealy mouthed self-deception at worst. Though I’m not a fan of the term, the reaction of photographers to “ruinporn” is dishonest, and needn’t be. And since everyone loves a good manifesto, here goes mine.
“Ruinporn” is a pejorative given to the type of photography you will find often on this blog. It is pictures of buildings and objects in various states of decay. This is, certainly, a narrow niche of aesthetics. It is, however, a direct descendant of romanticism. At first blush, this seems absurd: romantics were reacting against industrialization by attempting to return to a state of nature, one in which man’s raw emotions would be paramount. But what is ruinporn? It is a turning away from the malls, the artifice, the Disneyfication of modern America. In a country where many municipalities have ordinances on how often homeowners must cut their lawns and what type of car may be parked in the driveway, the places are off the grid. They are returning to nature. In their decay, they show us truths: mighty edifices of man crumble and turn feral within less than a generation’s span, and our pretty plastic facades are dust in the waiting.
But a yet stronger link to romanticism can be found on the emotional palette. It is melancholia that drove Chopin to write his haunting nocturnes and Caspar David Friedrich to paint his grim landscapes. Ruinporn inherits those traits. It wears that mantle because its subject matter is raw and beautiful. It is a raw emotionality that we are unaccustomed to, leaving its practice to Goth kids and other outcasts. But perhaps here we come to the problem. Urban explorers take great pains in finding and accessing their chosen sites; attempt to set up a shot in near darkness, in mud, muck and mold; and for what? Are we ashamed to say that it is for the beauty we see? Do we feel that puts us in league with stoners and emos, not “serious” artists?
What I see when I’m taking pictures is the shafts of light, the textures of rusting iron and walls peeling so much as to appear like fractured glass. I see the lines composed of fallen walls and piled up bricks. I see the curious juxtapostions of old material and new trash, the jarring colors of grafitti, and nature inexorably coming to reclaim what was hers all along. In all these things, I see beauty, and I need not justify it further by “starting discussions” or “raisning awareness.” What these buildings are, most often, are dangerous. They can and should be torn down. There is no saving the many buildings in Gary; all I can do is document their magnificent demise.
So lastly, I’ll return to the term in question. Let me be clear that I’m not a fan of the term; it is clearly derogatory as it attempts to position this kind of photography in relation to art in the same one dimensional way that porn relates to sexuality. I hope I’ve made the case that that analogy doesn’t hold. I would suggest “postmodern romanticist photography,” as we are documenting our ever changing urban landscapes as opposed to out relatively eternal natural surroundings, while redefining them after they’ve outlived their proscribed usefulness. Failing that, I’ll settle for “RuinErotica.”



Post Office Vault

8 responses

  1. I’ll sign on to that.
    I’ve always hated the term “ruinporn” and refused to use it as I felt it did not in any way describe my work. Glad to hear you’re going to stop using it.

    I could never put into words the why of what I do, other than I find these places magnificent and want to capture that.

    August 12, 2013 at 10:00 pm

  2. Your words are as beautiful as your images… well done.

    August 14, 2013 at 9:06 am

    • tabularasa88

      Thanks you, it’s good to get feedback on this one. I feel I’m an outlier in my attitudes.

      August 14, 2013 at 11:47 am

      • I don’t think that you are… I see the history, the beauty, the stories, the lifetimes that have been held within things that are hauntingly beautiful in their ruin… but to equate it with porn? That just makes me feel dirty (and not in a dusty, muddy, asbestos-covered kind of way).

        August 14, 2013 at 11:50 am

  3. Bravo sir, bravo. What a terrific description of your feelings, and I agree.

    When I look at a brick falling out of a wall, I see the brick’s life there. I see it being laid by the mason. I see it witness people coming and going over the years. The abandoned chairs tell stories…. the things they’ve seen. If only the inanimate objects could speak. Have you ever seen The Brave Little Toaster? :D

    I see history. I see a story. I see culture. And like you, I have a desire to share the beauty with others.

    Well done, TR. Doh, should have used the Welles applause gif here.

    August 15, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    • tabularasa88

      Thank you for the kind words. And, please, hold your applause :) I have not seen The Brave Little Toaster, but having grown up reading Hans Christian Andersen, I’m constantly anthropomorphizing all objects. There’s a library in the shuttered school we found recently (IP has already posted a picture) that almost made me choke up for the sake of the abandoned books…

      August 15, 2013 at 9:50 pm

  4. Very well written post… I entirely agree and find that you have captured what I see, think, and feel when I walk into such a place. I see more than ruin, I see a story. One can only guess as to what the walls of these ruins would say. To find beauty among chaos and destruction is something I wish everyone could see. Love your work!

    September 11, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    • tabularasa88

      Thank you. I appreciate knowing others feel the same.

      September 11, 2013 at 9:29 pm

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