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.”