Well, it is finally spring but winter isn’t ever really over until the end of April or so. There is always a chance for snow, but not on the scale we saw this winter. To remind myself that it really has gotten a lot nicer out I went back to my photos from our Gary trip during the blizzard, all the while not really thinking that I was going to find anything. I was quite delighted to find something lurking that I had overlooked several times. Silly me.
Many businesses in my area have proclaimed today a snow/ inhumanly cold day today after yesterday’s blizzard. While Tabula Rasa stayed at home, all warm and toasty, Foosball and I braved the storm (honestly not knowing how bad it was going to be), had a wipe out on the expressway and generally froze ourselves hiking through thigh high snow drifts to get inside of the post office. Were it not for the damage inflicted upon the vehicle, this trip would have been so worth it.
I love my new 10-20mm lens. Getting to fit more in a shot has been a revelation, especially in urbex, where I try to frame as much of a space as possible. At 10mm, you do get some distortion, which I’ve been trying to get better at correcting. Here, the shot has been stretched and pulled until I got the pesky walls straight(ish).
Indecision’s called a mild form of vice,
one whose wages are time and choices lost
but who can calculate compounding cost
when choices bifurcate not once, but twice?
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.”
For those who may not have noticed, Sometimes Interesting is talking about the long tragic history of the Sheraton Hotel in Gary. I strongly recommend it, it is the most complete history of this building ever compiled on the internet.
A little background on today’s photo, it is actually from a couple of years ago. Yes, yes, I’m cheating a little. I had this brilliant idea to talk a couple of friends into doing a photo shoot with us and we spent the better part of a Sunday having a hilarious time wandering the top 3 sites for urbex with a pair of drag queens. I have awesome friends. I figure since TR is out of the country I’d post all the photos I meant to post but never got around to in the meantime.
I’ve been taking the time to sort through some of my old photographs with the express purpose of dumping the really bad ones. For the longest time I’ve avoided the photos from 2008, the year I acquired a really crappy digital point-n-shoot and started going all camera nutty.
A large part of me avoiding these photos was I realized most of all them were crap but I was I attached to them as they signaled a new period in my life. Tonight I sorted the Gary pictures and found 2 that still spoke something to me. So I salvaged them the only way I know how to, I made them black and white.
First I give you a moment in time that I wish I could go back and recapture, but alas the remaining frame was ripped out by our next visit so I must consider myself lucky enough to have caught it in even a mediocre capture.
Now I know how I *should* shoot this, but the opportunity will never be there again.
Second I give you the view of the old post office from the back room. That little sapling you can hardly see is now a fairly decently sized sapling. I am saddened that one day the floor will no longer be able to hold it and it will end up in the basement. I’ve tried a few times to re-capture this view, but haven’t had the same light. Now that I have the ability to shoot for HDR I’m thinking I will be able to improve it, provided it isn’t a really windy day.
While Gary, Indiana is getting to be old hat for me, I still want to visit once a year and document the progress of time on these buildings. They have been standing empty for nigh on 40 years, and many of them are reaching that critical point where they are falling in on themselves.