Ruin Porn

Ruin porn is an artistic movement characterized by photographs of the blight, decay, and abandonment of structures in post-industrial cities, most notably Detroit.  It is a trend that seems ubiquitous and is only growing.  It was named Trend of the Year in 2011 by Architzer, the web’s fastest growing database of architecture.  Type “ruin porn” into any search engine (even Pinterest!) and millions of results pop up within seconds.  It can be found in museums and galleries, in newspapers, and on TV news.   So what is with the provocative name? Why are so many people into this trend? Is it good or is it bad?

Why “pornography”?

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, image from “The Ruins of Detroit” (2005- ) (image from thestapleton.com)

por·nog·ra·phy 3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction < the pornography of violence>

Ruin porn elicits an emotional reaction from the viewer – as does the word pornography. Both the term and the movement are tinged with sensationalism. They are both considered a guilty pleasure.   There is also a sense that these photographs are being taken by outsiders and that the photographs are exploitative.   People who don’t have to deal with the effects of the urban decay they photograph swoop into an economically depressed area, get their images, leave, and then show everyone what they saw for their own personal gain.

The word pornography is attention grabbing.  It gets press. The Germans have a word for a love of ruins and abandoned places. They call it ruinenlust.  Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite the same, does it?  I really can’t see ruinenlust grabbing headlines the way Ruin Porn has.

What is the appeal of ruins and decay?

https://i0.wp.com/www.feministe.us/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/ruins-of-detroit_marchand-and-meffre_8.jpg

The ruined Spanish-Gothic interior of the United Artists Theater in Detroit. The cinema was built in 1928 by C Howard Crane, and finally closed in 1974. Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Germans love it. Americans love. The Romantics of the early 19th century were fascinated by decay and ruins. Painters of the Renaissance obsessed over Grecian ruins… But why?

Done right, the images are beautiful, provocative, and nostalgic. They stir the emotions.  They draw you in and peak your curiosity.  They beg the questions, “where, why, how?”  (Don’t believe me? Check out abandonedamerica.us).

Psychologically, ruin porn images are appealing because they are startling.  According to Tim Edensor, a professor of geography at Manchester Metropolitan University, they “offer an escape from excessive order.”  It takes your brain more effort to sort out what its seeing, and it enjoys the challenge.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the term “ruin porn” because of its sensationalism and its silent accusation of wrong-doing, I am a fan of the genre.  I find the images arresting. They elicit an emotional response from me – one of nostalgia and wistfulness.  As a preservationist, it troubles me to see an historical structure crumbling due to neglect.  At the same time these images offer a unique look at historical spaces.  The deconstructive narrative of the images is as informative as it is beautiful. Flaking paint layers, crumbling plaster, exposed structural elements – all reveal something about the space and how it has been used.  The debris remaining in a space also offers clues about how it was used and who used it.  Ruin porn offers an uncurated link to the past.

Harmful or Helpful?

Old Courthouse Rotunda Lexington, KY

Ruin porn is more than an artistic movement. It is a comment on society.  Post-industrial cities are falling to ruin because of a changed economic climate that has given birth to the “rust belt.”  Ruin porn highlights how this economic change has effected the built environment.  Its critics claim ruin porn is condescending to the residents of the rust belt.  Ruin porn ignores them altogether – there is rarely a human element in a ruin porn image.  Therefore, ruin porn is not an accurate portrayal of the cities in which they live.  Citizens  have pushed back with ant-ruin porn rhetoric and and projects that actively  combat these misconceptions, like Can’t Forget the Motor City, a collaborative photo-project showcasing the vibrant culture of Detroit.  These cities have more to offer than urban decay.

Proponents of ruin porn believe in its possibility.  According to Richey Piiparinen of Rust Wire, ruin porn “outed” ruin. It pulled back the sheets and exposed the blight caused by a failed  system.  “… By outing and framing it—not to mention capturing the inherent beauty in broken things—Ruin Porn exposed the  failure and decay, thus clearing the secrecy, the shame, and leaving perceptual room to see less emptiness and more space.”  By raising awareness, ruin porn has the potential to change the way America responds to the economic failure of its cities.

Ruin porn has attracted tourists to cities – both foreign and American. It  has brought artists and professionals in search of urban decay.  Edwin Gardner calls this “intellectual disaster tourism.”  In a poll last month, the Huffington Post asked, “does photographing urban decay actually aid the communities at stake?” I think the simple answer is yes. Tourists spend money in the communities they visit – on food, accommodations,  transportation and maybe even souvenirs.

I agree that ruin porn has exposed decay and blight. I believe the awareness it has raised can save important historical structures.  I also believe that ruin porn documents structures that might otherwise have escaped notice; ruin porn photographs have the possibility of being useful to future research. For those reasons and more, I am a fan of ruin porn.

What do you think? Is ruin porn friend or foe?

9 comments

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  3. rprtphoto

    A provocative post. I had never heard the term “ruin porn” before, but evidently I’m guilty of it.. I see shooting abandoned and decaying buildings as art and/or historical documentation and/or social commentary about how quick our society is to forget the past and build something newer and therefore “better.” I hope that at least some people who see my images think about what value we place on old vs new, whether old buildings are “worth” saving, and is it “greener” to fix up and/or re-purpose an old building vs build a new one.

    RPRT Photo

    • bricksandmortarpreservation

      RPRT, your photos of ruins and decay are beautiful! In fact, I started following your blog after I saw the photograph you posted of Skeen School. Subsequent photos have been just as sensitive, artistic and thought provoking. They don’t “feel” exploitative and are always accompanied by thoughtful descriptions. I very much enjoy them, whether they are called “ruin porn” or not.

  4. didostechblog.com

    I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for excellent info I was looking for this info for my mission.

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