Opinion
Jan 12. 2012

Is ruin porn hitting the market?

by Hélène

Left:

This post was also published in The HuffPost Detroit, on 12/20/11.

Not long ago, I got an email from Romain Meffre, one of the two French photographers behind the book ‘The Ruins of Detroit’. Romain was forwarding me the link to Swatch’s 2011 Winter watch collection

I got intrigued by Romain’s own surprise: “look, it’s the clock from the old Cass Tech, straight from Detroit to Swatch!” And there is it… designed by Jeremy Scott (a US designer), mounted in the watch, the famous melted clock! Doing the research I didn’t find any reference to Detroit regarding the intention of the designer. However it’s hard not the see more than an anecdotic coincidence here. The watch is called “Melted Minutes,” not sure whether it comes with a framed picture of the old Cass Technical High School  (demolished by now).

So, is “ruin porn” hitting the market now? Will we soon see mugs, key chains and the likes, with the Packard or the Fisher body plants on them? I had met Romain prior to my move to Detroit this summer in order to learn from his experience in Detroit, a city he repeatedly visited since 2005. His work deepened my reflection on the so-called “ruin porn” genre.

I soon came to realize that ruin porn is an expression Detroiters are familiar with, not to say weary of. The term itself was coined by Vice magazine (well actually, by a Detroit resident who didn’t want the magazine to publish another “ruin bonanza” article) pointing at those urban explorers and journalists armed with pricy cameras coming to “see” the ruins of Motor city. There are many issues involved around “ruin porn” and what should be understood as such.

It evokes and plays with strong feelings and visuals such as blight, grief, pride, passion… all at once, heating up the debate. Some consider that snapping shots of ruins is exploitative and voyeuristic. Others say one shouldn’t be blinded by Detroit boosterism: we have to accept the current face of the city and stop focusing only on the positive aspects. Some consider the hypothesis of the end of the industrial civilization, Detroit ruins being the most picturesque embodiment of it. Others think it’s purely art and recall memento mori patterns…

After all, ruins have been a recurring theme in art, too. Take a look at both of these: on your left, “The Ruins of the Old Kreuzkirche in Dresden” by “il Canaletto,” dates back to 1765; on your right, “Kloste Ruine Eldena” by David Caspar Friedrich dates from 1825. I do understand the fascination for abandoned buildings, I mean, climbing up Michigan Central Station is like realizing your kid’s dream, going beyond boundaries and looking for hidden eye-treasures… Detroit has clearly an amazing array of 20th century buildings, the fact that most of them are left to rot really hurts me, who’s from Europe, a place where (supposedly) taxpayers’ money is used to preserve oldest monuments – or even rebuild what has been destroyed (like the Old Town in Warsaw, or the Stadtschloss in Berlin).

In the D, public money is scarce but the lack of maintenance has also to do with speculation… Photographing these buildings is totally understandable: even empty and crumbling, they’re beautiful. Aesthetically speaking Romain and Yves’ pictures are stunning. However all this post-apocalyptic fuss published with little or no explanation and without any more lively picture of Detroit can lead you to think that the city is dead. And hell, no, the D is not a Chernobyl zoo! As rightfully noted on the blog Feministe: there are never any people on these pictures. Yet people do live just next to the Packard plant and some folks have no other choice than “residing” in it… This echoes Patrick Leray’s highly recommended Guernica mag article: “So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins.”

We recently followed George, a sociology teacher at Livonia Schoolcraft, and a long-time resident of Midtown. George took a bunch of suburban undergrad students on a field trip to introduce them to the idea of gentrification. As soon as we entered a beautiful abandoned mansion that was obviously squatted by homeless people, the kids snapped pics that they’d directly post on their Facebook. It put me very ill at ease but nonetheless shows that what used to be an underground thing (urban exploration) is now just another category of the mainstream culture, the “sudo underground.” By becoming part of the mainstream landscape, ruins are on the verge of losing their meaning, just like with Swatch’s watch. But wait a (Swatch!) minute: are the buildings of Detroit actually ruins? Are these comparable to Roman or Greek ruins? Here’s another debate within the debate… But maybe we shouldn’t complain. When you think about it, the interest in Detroit monuments has clearly increased which gave birth to new publications that are sometimes self-proclaimed antidotes to the Ruin porn movement.

A couple of days ago, a new photography book about the ruins of Detroit got released, although this time each picture is commented by ‘city experts’ in Julia Reyes Taubman’s “Detroit: 138 Square Miles.” Meanwhile, two other new publications are paying tribute to the richness of Detroit’s history by bringing more “flesh” to the city. Amy Elliot Bragg’s “Hidden History of Detroit” as well as John Carlisle’s explorations in “313: Life in the Motor City,” strangely complete each other. The latest issue of British Boat Magazine (proudly self-labeled “an antidote to lazy journalism”) is entirely dedicated to Detroit. Its opening article is signed by Detroiter Jeffrey Eugenides, who repents his previous aesthetic posture in a genuine article untitled “Against Ruin Porn…” Seems we’re not yet seeing the end of the debate… In case you didn’t have enough reading, check this recent Gallerist NY article that made some buzz in the Detroit websphere: “Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?”

Comments
  • http://twitter.com/hautepop Jay @hautepop

    Great round-up of recent articles and really useful, particularly to have that old Vice mag link. Thanks for letting me know about it – but ‘fraid I can’t find anything to disagree with and spark a debate!

    • http://www.detroitjetaime.com Hélène

      Hey Jay! Thanks a lot for your comment and your tweet. No problem for the debate, it doesn’t need to be reignited that bad between like-minded people;) Hope to see you back on the blog soon, there is more of Detroit to discover!

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  • http://www.asteur-amerique.org Asteur Amérique

    On a même construit des ruines, comme celle du Désert de retz à quelques kilomètres de Paris.

    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9sert_de_Retz

    La ruine, c’est bizarre, c’est à la fois un endroit de mort mais aussi un endroit où la vie s’épanouit tranquillement, donc un endroit plein de vie. Pas de l’agitation, de la vie. D’ailleurs, c’est aussi le cas de la zone de Tchernobyl…

    • http://www.detroitjetaime.com Hélène

      Merci Asteur pour cet intéressant commentaire ! Tout à faire d’accord sur la ruine, objet de fascination mais aussi de vie. La zone en est un exemple sidérant. Merci d’ailleurs de nous faire découvrir votre site ! Avez-vous une newsletter ? Ou un moyen de suivre les nouvelles parutions en dehors de votre page facebook, que nous “likons” déjà au nom de du projet (https://www.facebook.com/detroitjetaime) ? A bientôt ! L’équipe de DJTM.

  • http://www.mickeypuccino.com/ Mickeypuccino

    C’est une thématique que j’avais remarqué en habitant à Berlin mais pouvoir y mettre un nom c’est pas mal… :-) Super article, merci.

    • http://www.detroitjetaime.com Hélène

      Ami berlinois, merci pour ton commentaire ! Ravies que tu nous aies trouvées ! N’hésite pas à suivre notre projet sur nos réseaux sociaux @detroitjetaime ; http://www.facebook.com/detroitjetaime et si le coeur t’en dit, rejoins notre newsletter: http://eepurl.com/iiDO6 ! a+++

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