Solving Cities

Ruin porn

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Are ruin pornographers missing the mark? A new photography project says yes.

Can't Forget the Motor City: Detroit (photograph by Brian Widdis)

Images of urban decay, loss, dilapidation, and disinvestment - images that detail the passing of time - have reached pornographic status, at least, linguistically speaking.

"Ruin porn worships the 33,000 empty houses and 91,000 vacant lots of Detroit," writes Pete Brook at Wired.  "It overlooks the 700,000+ residents. It doesn’t come close to describing the city."

Photographers Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart are trying to change that. Can't Forget Motor City is an online photography project telling a pointedly different Detroit story.

Can't Forget the Motor City: Detroit (photograph by Romain Blanquart)

"The global media and many visiting photographers see Detroit as an abandoned and dead city," Widdis and Blanquart write in their artist statement. "We are shown picture after picture of our modern ruins, buildings that were once the pride of our city. What is constantly absent from these soulless images are the people."

But not everyone agrees that ruin porn is "soulless". In fact, calling visual subjects of decay and dilapidation "porn" might be more provocative than meaningful.

Do the iconic images of Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore and The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre unfairly abandon a city not yet dead?

Urban researcher Richey Piiparinen thinks not.

"I don’t feel the modern ruins littering the Rust Belt landscape are a negative," writes Piiparinen for Rust Wire. "Rather, I feel cities like Cleveland and Detroit that have physically borne the brunt of a broken system are also home to something else: a possibility tied to the ubiquity of so many vacant and crumbled things."

A resident of Cleveland himself, Piiparinen urges residents to wink at each other in self-confidence instead of making self-flagellating comments about the state of the Rust Belt.

"Because that America of Times Square and Texas growth is an illusion that is barely keeping itself from falling apart," writes Piiparinen. "Whereas the Rust Belt has been able to stare at the pieces of a broken paradigm for some time now."

"Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel" The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

"Atrium, Farwell Building" The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Can't Forget the Motor City: Detroit (photograph by Romain Blanquart)

Piiparinen says, "Ruin Porn—or the artistic movement centered on photographing the scenes of post-industrial decay— has been called a lot by many. It has been referred to as condescending to Rust Belters. It has been called a necessary evil. It has been called masturbating-the-eye art.  I call it a breath of fresh air, or more exactly: a tool for a change in perception."

In the end, whether ruin porn is condescending or not, it has definitely had it's artistic heyday.

“Yes, there are empty houses and factories and yes, there are urban farmers with conviction and energy. But on a day-to-day basis, most citizens are barely affected by either of those extremes,” says Widdis.

And while Can't Forget Motor City is trying to transcend the clichés of Rust Belt photography projects, Widdis and Blanquart recognize that a Detroit photography project is something of a clichés in and of itself.

“Detroit is close to bankruptcy, unemployment is stubbornly high, and a shrinking tax base has left the city struggling to provide basic services," says Widdis. "There’s a plan to turn off the power to half of the city’s streetlights! So it’s not surprising that in 2012, four years after the auto bailout, housing bubble, and countless news stories about ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ (or its opposite ‘Detroit is Actually Not That Bad’), a kind of ‘Detroit Project’ fatigue has set in."

Let SmartPlanet know what you think. Is there still a place for ruin worship? Is it naive to see images of decay as symbols of change? Is it fair to call ruin porn "soulless"?

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure