ARTnews: American Ruins

Disaster Photography: When is Documentary Exploitation?

BY  POSTED 02/06/13

Photographers who produce spectacular images of Detroit, Chernobyl, and other ravaged areas have sparked disagreements whether they are exploiting others’ misfortune—or just covering the bad news

Mitch Epstein’s Biloxi, Mississippi 2005 vividly represents the inversion of normalcy that is Hurricane Katrina’s legacy.©BLACK RIVER PRODUCTIONS, LTD. AND MITCH EPSTEIN/COURTESY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO., NEW YORK.

“RUIN PORN” is a phrase so immature and gawky it isn’t sure how seriously to take itself. Like its linguistic relatives “animal porn,” “shoe porn,” “food porn,” “real estate porn,” and “fill-in-the-blank porn,” it’s a smirking neologism that may or may not aspire to be a social critique.

The Internet spawns much of this language and protects it behind high walls of irony. A weakness for videos of kittens and puppies, or photographs of Christian Louboutin shoes, is generally deemed a harmless vice. Being too self-righteous about the dangers of any sort of porn invites ridicule from bloggers and tweeters.

Then again, by linking a subject to an erotic genre calculated to excite us with a stock set of provocative fantasies, inventors or adopters of these compound nouns can also claim to be doctors of the postmodern soul, identifying unnoticed and insidious tropes in our glutinous diet of images.

James Griffioen, writer and photographer of “Sweet Juniper,” a Detroit-based blog, is usually credited as the father of the term “ruin porn.” He was first quoted using it in a 2009 piece in Vice magazine byThomas Morton, who had asked Griffioen to guide him around the Motor City after the 2008 financial meltdown.

As they rode around trash-choked neighborhoods and padlocked factories, Griffioen voiced his disgust with journalists and artists who would drop into the city to record and lament its decline without considering the events, stages, and forces that had led up to it. As Griffioen explains, “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.”

Some of the same principles, he notes, “that apply to pornography—exploitation, detachment, etcetera—easily apply” to this situation. Thus, from a snarky aside a meme was born.

In the last three years, “ruin porn” has found acceptance in on- and off-line publications from Salon to the New York Times Magazine, and also gained traction as an academic topic. A symposium last November at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation brought together two writers, Camilo José Vergara (American Ruins, 2003) and Andrew Herscher(The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit, 2012) who have focused on America’s Rust Belt ruins. They were joined by photographer Andrew Moore, whose 2010 book Detroit Disassembled—featuring lush color pictures of abandoned buildings and other signs of abject neglect—is cited by many bloggers, including Griffioen, as the epitome of an artistic genre they decry.

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Text courtesy of ARTnews.

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