Ruins photography, sometimes called ruin porn, is a recent movement in photography that takes the decline of the built-environment (cities, buildings, infrastructure) as its subject. While “ruins” may be broadly defined as the remnants, or residue of human achievement from the temples of ancient Sumeria to Machu Picchu, ruins photography refers specifically to the capture of urban decay and decline in the post-industrial zones of the world. Ruins photography aestheticizes the abandonment and decline of the city most of all, and has sparked conversations about the role of art in various revitalization and restoration projects from Detroit to Berlin.
Ruins photography is a relatively new form of photography that focuses on the aesthetic and artistic value of modern urban decay. Subjects are typically large industrialized cities (e.g. New York City, Chicago, or Detroit) but can be any landscape, building, or symbolic representation of modern ruin and deindustrialization. Popular staples of ruins photography can include abandoned houses, neglected factories leftover from the Industrial Revolution or auto industry booms, as well as bridges, abandoned lots, tenant or apartment buildings, or gutted theaters or offices.
Photographer Camilo José Vergara helped to bring the style greater recognition in the 1990s with his books The New American Ghetto and American Ruins. In the 2010s, photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre published The Ruins of Detroit which brought renewed interest.
The style relies heavily on lighting, detail close-ups, long shots, and digital imaging. Ruins photography is different from historical architectural photography in that it does not focus on comparisons between past and present, but instead focuses on the state of the subject and how it came to be dilapidated.
Some critics liken ruins photography to exploitation, comparing its appeal to that of sensationalist pornography. While most regard it for aesthetic purposes, critics find fault with the style’s minimal attention to the cities and places visited.
John Patrick Leary, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said:
And others roll their eyes at all the positive attention heaped on the young, mostly white ‘creatives,’ which glosses over the city’s deep structural problems and the diversity of ideas to help fix them. So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.
Others embrace ruins photography as a way of marketing for potential tourism, while yet others have insisted that it can serve as a powerful call to action. Responding to critics such as Leary, Detroit blogger James Griffioen suggested that there are different ways to mediatize urban and industrial decline: one spectacular and sensational (exploitative), the other more responsible.
The few photographers and reporters I met weren’t interested at all in telling the story of Detroit, but instead gravitated to the most obvious (and over-photographed) ‘ruins,’ and then used them to illustrate stories about problems that had nothing to do with the city (which has looked like this for decades). I take pictures of ruins, too, but I put them in the context of living in the city. These photographers were showing up with $40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills.
Ruins photographers are responding to critics who suggest that the genre pays little attention to local stories, by bringing the histories of the places and structures they photograph into their narratives. However, this new wave of ruins photography—more sensitive to the histories of structures and cities—is being met by a new wave of criticism. Locals in Detroit, Chicago, and other Rust Belt cities most featured by ruins photographers, point to the continued absence of the people living among the ruins from such accounts.
Ruins around the world
Detroit, Michigan is a major center for ruins photography. Since manufacturing jobs began leaving the city in the 1950s, Detroit has not only seen a decline in population, but also has seen many buildings and homes abandoned, vandalized, and destroyed. Many other major cities and smaller settlements that once thrived have decayed over periods of time, some even becoming ghost towns due to economic hardship or civil unrest.
The town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, saw its population vanish due to a fire that spread from a nearby cemetery and ended up sparking smoldering flames in extensive abandoned coal mines below the district. The state of Pennsylvania has blocked roads to the area, but there are about ten vigilant inhabitants that remain.[when?] Another example of urban decay is Gary, Indiana.
Hashima Island, Nagasaki, Japan was an empty island that became populated due to its coal deposits. Home to some of Japan’s first concrete high rise buildings, it became a ghost town when petroleum replaced coal. Another example of a ghost town is Kolmanskop, Namibia, built by Germans into a successful diamond mining community. After the mining stopped and the workers left, the desert repossessed the area.
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