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Opinion: Is it time to draw a line under artists producing so-called ruin porn?

Posted by Rob Alderson,

Editor Rob Alderson looks at the whys and wherefores of so-called ruin porn and considers the contexts in which it has creative or cultural merit. As ever we’d love to know what you think and you can add your voice to the discussion below…

Last week we came across the Detroit Urbex project, a really fascinating site which seeks to “raise awareness of the social and economic challenges the city of Detroit faces through photography.” The most arresting series – and the one we posted on It’s Nice That – featured pictures of the Cass Technical High School in its heyday overlaid onto images of its current dilapidated state.

But what some see as a ghoulish fascination with wallowing in Detroit’s faded glories is likely to have raised hackles in some quarters. In the first issue of the excellent boat magazine, Jeffrey Eugenides wrote an eloquent convincing plea to move on from what he called the “aestheticizing of Detriot’s demise.” He admitted that in the past he too had fallen into the trap of doing so but his essay reminds us that Detroit is not a theme park, it’s home for hundreds of thousands of people.

He calls out by name French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, who he claims “descended on Detroit to make coffee table books, speaking all the while of the city’s destruction in abstract or poetic terms, and acting as though they were bringing us the news about ourselves.”

I put this charge to the pair when I interviewed them last year, and they admitted that recently-closed community facilities like schools and libraries were sensitive subjects, but maintained: “We think the ruins deserve to be looked at directly before they disappear so they act as a record and tell a story even if there is no fairy-tale ending.”

So where should the line be drawn? Has the obsession with Detroit gone too far, or can it legitimately be considered the latest in a cultural line that stretches back to the Parthenon and the pyramids? There’s no easy answer, and I certainly have sympathy for Eugenides’ stance (as a native of Birmingham I understand what it’s like to defend a city constantly rundown by outsiders!). But to make any city, any subject off limits for artists seems wrong. There are no hack topics, I would suggest, only hack artists….

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Posted by Rob Alderson

Editor-in-Chief Rob oversees editorial across all three It’s Nice That platforms; online, print and events. He has a background in newspaper journalism and a particular interest in art, advertising and photography. He is the main host of the Studio Audience podcast.