This is a very thoughtful essay by John Patrick Leary that appeared about a year ago in the pages of Guernica. He considers the aestheticization of Detroit’s decay, and discusses the “ruin porn” that fascinates non-Detroit artists and cultural observers so much. Three main views are presented, based partly on recent books of photography and films about the city:
1) Detroit as metonym – the city standing in as a literal term for the turmoil and decline of the auto industry, which delivers many conflicting social and political messages.
2) The Lament – artistically gawking at the scale of destruction and decline in the city, often to a naive or melodramatic degree.
3) Utopia – championing the rebirth of Detroit through its “alternative” and “cutting-edge” artists and urban creativity. Leary points out, rightly in my experience, that this often focuses on the activities of young, educated, white artists, ignoring the diversity of community projects that have kept the city afloat to some degree.
Leary asserts that recent Detroit-focused documentary art takes on one of these three viewpoints, all of which treat Detroit as an aesthetic subject in a detached way. While they focus on the decayed beauty of literal places – which has its own complicated appeal – this kind of work doesn’t actually engage with its subject or ask questions about how things got this way.
According to Leary, this kind of work, which he calls (and maybe others call) ruin photography, “cannot help but exploit a city’s misery; but as political documents on their own, they have little new to tell us.”
A final thought from Leary’s conclusion: “Because the ironic appeal of modern ruins lies in the archaeological fantasy of discovery combined with the banality of what is discovered—a nineteen-eighties dentist’s office is not implicitly fascinating for anyone who inhabited one in its intact state—a ruin photograph succeeds in providing the details of a familiar story whose major plot points we can’t piece together.”
Assumes that the project of photography should be more than abstract aestheticization of the subject, especially if the work is positioned in a certain way as somehow edgy, engaged, or political. It’s not enough to say, “a train station is a train station is a train station.” I haven’t seen the photos in question, but I think Leary sees them as positioning themselves in this way. Which, let’s face it, it’s hard to avoid with this particular subject, especially if you want to sell books.