I’ve been thinking lately about a recent (and excellent) post about the politics and archaeology of so-called “ruin porn” by Paul Mullins. In his entry, Mullins delves into the contemporary fascination with ruins and ruination, particularly as it is expressed in art photography. He outlines the critiques of approaches that sensationalize and aestheticize ruins, using these discussions to explore the underlying politics of documenting, and indeed relishing, the traces of ruination. Mullins thoughtfully probes the label “ruin porn,” arguing that although such photography may be guilty of fetishization, it shouldn’t be rejected outright. He instead maintains that, “any photograph is a selective representation of reality that cannot hope to capture concrete experience. Pornography does at least visually own up to its desires.”
Mullins’ post is thought-provoking and offers an exciting look into an extremely contemporary debate. As our economy continues to muddle along, we have become increasingly familiar with the aesthetics of decay and ruin. From streets and buildings to homes and lives, we’ve seen the tragic results of years of fiscal downturn. They are emotional and visceral. This is where concerns with images of ruination arise–the human toll, exacted over weeks and months and years, is not immediately evident. Knowing this, the thought of someone, anyone, getting pleasure out of these scenes (destruction in slow-motion) is upsetting. These are sentiments with which most would agree.
I worry, however, that we risk denying the potency of the imagination. Photographs, while ostensibly static images, are a known commodity; that is, most contemporary audiences possess at least a working knowledge of their production, from a real scene to a composed shot to a captured image to a distributed picture. We know what it’s like to hold a camera, measure an angle, and press the button. This familiarity with a picture’s production does not vanish when we view an image. It may retreat into the subconscious, but we’re typically aware, when looking at a photograph, that we are looking at something produced by an individual with a camera (here I’m excluding abstract images designed to divorce the photograph from the photographic process–sometimes it’s tough to tell exactly what we’re looking at!). There is a narrative to photography that extends from the life of the depicted scene through to its capture on film. When we view a photograph, our mind tries to catalog the scene, fitting it into a constructed story. It would then seem unreasonable to suggest that, when seeing an image of ruination, we are unable to fit the picture into a larger narrative of decay. It may not be reflective of a distinct reality with fixed details, but we sense that these decrepit buildings were not built decrepit. They did not spring forth in an advanced stage of decay; time dragged them into debilitation.
The trouble, according to critics, comes from seeing beauty in the breakdown. Here I echo Mullins (and others, such as the Ruin Memories project and Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal) who argue that archaeology should confront elements of the contemporary past that may be painful, awkward, or politically incorrect. I also wonder though if we aren’t guilty of conflating aesthetic appreciation with a lack of empathy. Can we appreciate the beauty of a photograph and the tragedy of its condition simultaneously? How much self-flagellation is appropriate before we’re able to gaze in awe at a striking picture? Ruin porn is not the first movement to elicit these sorts of questions. For instance, the work of New York City crime photographer Weegee at once shocked and fascinated audiences in the 1930s and 40s. Weegee’s subject matter was different and more immediately graphic, but was instilled with similar emotions, captured in an artistic, gritty, and evocative light. Today his photographs hang in museums. There is no doubting the loss contained in Weegee’s subjects, but can the same be said about images of ruins? Must every ruin symbolize catastrophe? Is there such a thing as a triumphant ruin, a building that was not the stage for some vicious downfall, but was rather simply left, forgotten, and then transformed into a thing of beauty?
Archaeology, as it sits at the intersection of the temporal and the material, is one way to explore some of these questions. Many contemporary archaeologists are immediately drawn to the difficult stories and they are to be applauded. Theirs is a challenging path, but they often are able to draw out the significance of contemporary ruination and strife, however distressing or laborious it may be. But attention is also due to those less traumatic tales of spaces that slipped through the cracks, those triumphant ruins that live on in ruin porn, unabashed at their glorious nakedness.