Photographing Devastation: Ruin Porn?

June 12, 2013 | Alyson

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Once I built a tower to the sun,
Brick and rivet and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it's done.
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

- E. Y. Harburg

It's been reported recently that the city of Detroit might have to declare itself bankrupt.  It's almost impossible to imagine. There has even been speculation that it could have sell off its art treasures, which include Rembrandts and Van Goghs and most sadly, a Diego Rivera mural celebrating Detroit's industrial prowess. Call it a cultural fire sale.

Lee Plaza Hotel ballroom Among the casualties of this economic crisis are brick and rivet and lime. There are 78,000 abandoned buildings in the city, 38,000 of which have been declared potentially dangerous. 

Detroit's architectural decay has been well documented, including a previous post on this blog.  In The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre once grand buildings are preserved in images in all their faded splendour. They've posted a photographic essay with many of the shots from the book.

In Detroit Disassembled Andrew Moore makes another study of these modern ruins. 


Birches_Growing_in_Books-Detroit2Moore narrates a slideshow of his Detroit exhibit here. In one photograph of the book depository, you can see a small forest of birch trees springing from decaying books. Apart from the strangeness of seeing trees made from books instead of books made from trees, some of Moore's photographs recall  images of the temples at Angkor - tree roots half-strangling, almost devouring an entranceway to the temple. In the iconic photos of the Hindu temple you're unsure who will win - building or tree. Moore's photos, however, leave little doubt. 

 

Angkor Ta Prohm        Walden_Street-Detroit

(Temple photo reproduced with kind permission of Jene Youtt)

But, Detroit is no still life. It's still a living city.  I disagree with Marchand and Meffre who wrote that "Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification." It must irk the people who live in Detroit to see their city portrayed by non-Detroiters only as a curiosity.  Critics have coined the term "ruin porn" for some of these photographic displays and accused some of aestheticizing  poverty without examining its origins.

Artistic interest in Detroit's neglected buildings is not new; photographer Camilo Jose Vergara, author of American Ruins  and The New American Ghetto even suggested that the city turn them into a 'ruin park'.  Unofficially, this is already happening as The New York Times reported a few months ago.

Detroit may have seen better days, but it's alive and kicking.  A recent issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine had an article about the revitalization of the David Broderick Tower. Built in 1928 as an early skyscraper, it became the world's largest pigeon coop in the 1980s. But today its occupants are once again people, and, shortly after opening in late 2012, it was completely full.  So, the city carries on.

I think Detroit Disassembled is saved from being detached or exploitative, in large part by the essay by poet laureate, Philip Levine that accompanies the book.  Levine is a native of Detroit. He worked in factories and drove a truck before he was noticed as a poet. I'll leave the last lines for him:

I walked further south, toward the river, and to my astonishment I found a large fenced-in garden...The gardener appeared from nowhere and asked me if I wanted a closer look; he opened the gate -which hadn't been locked - and took me down the rows, named the various crops while boasting only the least bit about the perfection of his tomatoes - "so good they remind you what tomatoes taste like." No, he didn't have permission from the city, these days no one asked the city for anything. There'd once been a nice two-story house on this ground, but it was gone, just got up and left, and then the land was empty, so why not use it. The fence was here to keep the dogs out; it was like the Depression years - which we both recalled - with packs of wild dogs cut loose by their owners and left to their own devices, foraging and wandering. "That's what we all do to survive here," he said.

From Detroit Disassembled

You might also be interested in these:

 

Is this place great or what Secret Lives of Buildings Urban wildscapes Ruin photographs of a vanishing America

American Ruins  In the life of cities  Bringing buildings back  Color of Loss




 

 

 


 

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