For the average photographer interested in photographing abandoned buildings, Detroit may seem like the mecca of urban ruins (1). On the other hand, John Patrick Leary’s article “Detroitism” looks at the suffering community that is being exploited through this sensationalist photography. There seems to be a growing interest in Detroit’s ruins, and as a result numerous photographic works are being produced. Perhaps the most successful and well known is The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.
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.
history seems more visible here, and this is the visual fascination that Detroit holds
ruin photography cannot help but exploit a city’s misery
A good example of this sensationalism of ruins, and ignorance of a real cultural struggle, can be seen in Andrew Moore’s Detroit Dissassembled. Leary writes:
photos tend towards overwrought melodrama, like the photograph of an abandoned nursing home tagged with a spray-painted slogan, “God Has Left Detroit.” Moore leans on the compositional tactic of ironic juxtaposition, an old standby of documentary city photography since at least the days of Robert Frank and Helen Levitt. In one photograph (repeated in Marchand and Meffre’s collection) of the East Grand Boulevard Methodist church, its Biblical invocation, “And you shall say that God did it,” looms above its sanctuary. The irony is obvious, heavy-handedly so, yet the photographer’s meaning is less clear. One feels obliged to raise the obvious defense of the Almighty here: If anyone or anything “did it,” General Motors and the Detroit City Council had a hell of a lot more to do with it than God did. And who said God was ever here in the first place?
For me, there are at least three categories of ruin photography; documentation, artistic expression (albeit a slippery slope) and sensationalism. This example that Leary describes is a perfect example of the latter. Leary describes this sensationalism as ruin porn. He writes:
This is the style denounced locally as “ruin porn.” All the elements are here: the exuberant connoisseurship of dereliction; the unembarrassed rejoicing at the “excitement” of it all, hastily balanced by the liberal posturing of sympathy for a “man-made Katrina;” and most importantly, the absence of people
Leary also mentions:
In requisitioning the ruin’s aura of historical pathos, ruin photos suggest a vanquished, even glorious past but, like the ruins themselves, present no way to understand our own relationship to the decline we are seeing. After all, this is not Rome or Greece, vanished civilizations; these ruins are our own, and the society they indict is ours as well.
In a country perennially plagued with a historical amnesia, ruins are rare permanent reminders of a history unsuited to the war memorials and equestrian statues that dot the national landscape. Another reason for the fascination with Detroit’s decline is less about history, though, and more about the future.
This fascination with Detroit’s post-apocalyptic landscape could stem from our growing cultural fear of the end of the world. We are poisoning our planet and seeing the catastrophic results, technology is decomposing social interaction and the dragging on of a global financial crisis is leaving little room for future hope. In an attempt to understand this grim future, we are becoming fascinated with the apocalypse (be it the mayan calendar, or the increased fascination with zombies.) Detroit may seem like the perfect real abandoned landscape, and yet it is not abandoned. There are people who still live and work in Detroit who want to be seen for their unique creativity and success, rather than pigeonholed and exploited for their ruins. The visual nature of Detroit’s ruins embody our worst fear for the future (2).
In addition to the photographic exploitation, there seems to be a growing bohemian and youthful renaissance occurring. Leary points out that it is often driven by white youths who perhaps do not fully understand the scope of the issues in Detroit, but are flocking to this creative wasteland to build up a bohemian utopia.
Detroit figures as either a nightmare image of the American Dream, where equal opportunity and abundance came to die, or as an updated version of it, where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the one-hundred-dollar house and community garden of their dreams.
I will conclude with the cover of The Ruins of Detroit. It is of the Michigan Central station (designed by the same architects who did Grand Central Station in New York). It is the most famous ruin in Detroit. The photo is framed (and again is the cover) so to avoid ANY context of place. It could be anywhere in the world, it is a photograph about a ruin, not a photograph of a social/political/economical situation which is part of the reason why the image (and as the cover representing the entire body of work) exploits the misery of Detroit without presenting a discussion for solutions.
Leary, John Patrick. “Detroitism by John Patrick Leary – Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics.” Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics. http://www.guernicamag.com/features/leary_1_15_11/ (accessed November 28, 2012).