February 13th, 2013

In Defense of “Ruin Porn”

As large swaths of Detroit fall to ruins, the city has attracted many documentary and fine-art photographers in recent years. Among them are Andrew Moore, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, and Bruce Gilden, to name just a few. Not far behind came the critics who have disparaged the work with a catchy label: Ruin Porn.

What's wrong with pictures like these? Top: from The Ruins of Detroit ©Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre; bottom: from Detroit Disassembled ©Andrew Moore

What’s wrong with pictures like these? This image: from The Ruins of Detroit ©Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre; Below: from Detroit Disassembled ©Andrew Moore

Now Richard B. Woodward, an arts critic based in New York, has taken on the critics of “Ruin Porn” in a thoughtful essay posted last week on ARTnews.com.

Woodward dismisses the label itself as a “smirking neologism” by which self-appointed “doctors of the postmodern soul” identify “insidious tropes in our glutinous diet of images.”

From there, he goes on to weigh the merits–and problems–of photographs by outsiders of  places like Detroit. Woodward does that by considering the pictures of Detroit in the larger context of documentary photography. He ultimately comes down on the side of photographers who document places that are hard hit by economic or natural disaster, despite the limitations of the medium and the inability of photography to tell the whole story.

None of the photographers being accused of “Ruin Porn” are “pandering directly to a paying audience, which is the business model of pornography,” Woodward argues. “All are simply chronicling the bad news that has befallen people and looking for dramatic motifs to illustrate their stories. Many of the shortcomings people find in their work can be traced to faults in the medium itself. Photography is superbly equipped to describe the results of events but is inarticulate or misleading when it comes to explaining their causes.

©Andrew Moore

©Andrew Moore

“The camera itself may have been, as Walter Benjamin alleged, a destabilizing and decontextualizing invention. But at the same time, it has also been used to stitch torn things back together.”

He points out that “Residents of the South Bronx in the ’70s were no happier that those in Detroit today to see their neighborhoods turned into international icons of violence and dysfunction. Were the Alabama farmers in the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans helpless and ‘exploited’? Or did those images crystallize their resilience against forces that would have rendered them even more invisible had he never been there? Is no news better than bad news?”

The full essay is worth a read by anyone who cares to photograph responsibly in places where they don’t actually live, as well as by those who would rush to dismiss that work as illegitimate with labels such as “Ruin Porn.”

June 8th, 2012

Photoville Brooklyn Announces Artist Talks, Workshops, Events

When the inaugural Photoville event kicks off on June 22 in Brooklyn, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, not only will it boast a village of exhibitions housed in 30 freight containers, it will also include plenty of educational programming and events for visitors.

The slate of artist talks, lectures, workshops and other events run June 23-24. On the 23rd, BagNewsNotes editor Michael Shaw will speak about the state of news photography, and a panel discussion moderated by Pete Brook of Prison Photography blog fame will discuss “documentary, institutional, vernacular and legal photography and the political uses of images by media.”

That night MediaStorm will give a presentation on “digital storytelling and the cinematic narrative.”

Workshops that run on both days will cover topics like analogue photography, printing, light painting and zine making.

Programming on the June 24th will include a talk about contemporary documentary photography by Ed Kashi, Lori Grinker and Benjamin Lowy, moderated by Glenn Ruga, and a talk about how photography is being used to promote human rights.

That night there is a “show and tell” opportunity for anyone who wants to bring work and talk about it for three minutes, and throughout the day the Center for Alternative Photography will run a “Tintype Photo Booth” where visitors can have their portrait made and learn about this alternative photo process.

There is a slate of exhibitions by photographers from all over the world. For example, Open Society Institute will show Wyatt Gallery’s work from Haiti; Nooderlicht in the Netherlands will present 11 photographers documenting life in prison; The Magnum Foundation will exhibit recent work by Bruce Gilden and Sim Chi Yin. Feature Shoot is showing work by young photographers, and PDN is showing the winners of The Curator contest.

Add to all this the beer garden and food, and the dog run where you can get photos taken of your pooch at play.

For more on the Photoville schedule visit their Web site: http://photovillenyc.org/about.html