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.”