an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, Winter 2016/2017, ISSN 1552-5112                                                                                                            



It Will Arise from the Ashes, or Exploring the Aesthetics of Postmodern Ruin Photography in Detroit



Kat Buckley







The United States’ national conversation around the city of Detroit, Michigan, is shaped largely by photographs taken in the last ten years of interiors that are shells of their former selves. Depictions include abandoned theaters and symphony halls, alluding to the time when Detroit was a wealthy cultural center. These images serve to showcase the city’s deterioration since its golden era. Without context, these images can make a viewer believe that Detroit has been largely deserted. Many authors fixate on the cultural conditions that led to such deterioration, but less has been written regarding the pursuit of beauty captured in pictures of a young city in the throes of decline.


What is the line between beauty and decay so often blurred in the context of Detroit? I will examine photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) in order to analyze the degeneration of “The Motor City” through a formal lens:



Fig. 1. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel, 2006. Chromogenic color print, 150cm x 190cm.
Reproduced from Marchand Meffre, (accessed: 6 March, 2016).




Fig. 2. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Atrium, Farwell Building, 2006. Chromogenic color print, 150cm x 190cm.

Reproduced from Marchand Meffre, (accessed: 6 March, 2016).



Furthermore, I will scrutinize the aesthetic and psychological rationales for these images, the sheer popularity of which attests to their proliferation as a uniquely morbid mass preoccupation. The remains of Detroit are a manufactured artificiality, and despite their oxymoronic existence within a city that still functions as a cultural hub for many, these abandoned spaces are seen as emblematic of beauty inherent in the loss of the American dream. The vast dissemination of these photographs has allowed the conflicts within these images to be seen and consumed widely, thereby creating a perpetual motion machine, feeding gratification to urban explorers and aesthetic hedonists lusting after decay.


While growing up in rural New Jersey, I avidly read a local magazine called Weird NJ, which highlighted local abandoned spaces and featured directions on how to break in. I took many trips inspired by the articles in this magazine, thereby enabling me to explore abandoned hospitals, roads with 13 potholes named “Shades of Death”, and burnt out mansions, like the Untermeyer (Fig. 3):


Fig. 3. The Untermeyer Mansion, 2016.

 Available from: Flickr, (accessed 3 April, 2016).


These modern-day ruins were my childhood escapes where I searched for paranormal activity, discovering what was real and what was not in the heavily wooded northwestern area of the Garden State. If I had to say what attracted me to them, it was an opportunity to have a unique experience in the company of friends, far from the prying eyes of my schoolmates. There was also a certain nostalgia in my recently-built corner of suburbia, in the United States’ most densely populated commonwealth, in a town founded in the 1700s. It grappled with the loss of its colonial identity, which had been traded for strip malls and movie theaters. Perhaps geographers Mike Crang and Penny S. Travlou best encompass my strange fascination with these spaces when they write, “The city produces ruins that bring the past into the present and future. The effect of these multiple times in place is to disrupt any sense of linear flow.”[1]


Ruins have taken on a new significance for me within the study of art history. As I continue in my education, ruins remain around me, especially in my new home within the rustbelt of the midwestern United States. The capital of these ruin meccas for photographers is Detroit. While ruin photography is sad and complex, photography enthusiasts and laymen alike continue to demand it in droves, leading to a new industry providing work to amateur photographers in a city with few other business opportunities.[2]  Kyle Chayka for Hyperallergic writes, “These ‘parachuters’ leave Detroit just as quickly as they arrived, contributing little but to the city’s image of decay.”[3]  His sentiment is common, wrapped up in an understanding of Detroit as a multifaceted city that is often superficially depicted, albeit with immeasurable aesthetic value. The darlings of this ruin photography movement are Camilo Jose Vergara, who has been referred to as the “godfather of ruin porn” (Fig. 4),[4] Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4), two French photographers whose work has graced The New York Times, Vogue, The Economist, and who now have their own large coffee-table book, marketed as catering toward the ever-burgeoning demand for this type photography, and Andrew Moore (Fig. 5):


Fig. 4. Vergara, Camilo José, Former Camden Free Public Library, 2nd floor reading room, Broadway at Line St., Camden 1997.
Color photograph.

 Available from: (accessed 10 April, 2016).


Fig. 5. Moore, Andrew, Aurora, Detroit, 2008.  Color photograph.

Available from: Andrew L Moore, (accessed 25 April, 2016).


The photography of contemporary ruins can be classified its own artistic movement, and the larger public’s fascination with the subject matter seems to know no bounds. These images proliferate widely on the internet and are represented in galleries, mostly in those of which are based out of major centers of arts and commerce around the world.[5],[6],[7],[8],[9]  Cultural historian Thomas L. Sugrue writes:

Although there are shrinking cities throughout the world, the ruined landscapes of post-industrial America are among the starkest in the world...There is no better place than Detroit to observe the dialectical forces of modern capitalism, often in their most exaggerated forms. Detroit is a place of both permanence and evanescence, of creation and destruction, of monumentality and disposability, of place and placelessness, of power and disempowerment.


The United States’ national conversation around the city of Detroit is shaped by images, largely those that have been taken in the last five years by photographers who are not natives of the city. Typical depictions include abandoned hospitals and symphony halls, which together allude to a time when Detroit was a wealthy cultural center. In 2010, a BBC documentary on Detroit began by saying, “Not since the last days of the Maya has the Americas witnessed a transformation as traumatic as that which has befallen the Motor City.”[11] Nostalgic superlatives proliferate throughout the media’s description of the city. This type of language can be read as code for the type of audience that the media around this city hopes to engage.


Without context, these images feel as if Detroit has been suddenly deserted. Much has been made, and rightly so, about the cultural conditions that have led to such decay. But less has been written about the American pursuit of beauty through photographing the ruins of a country as young as the United States. A fledgling state without many ancient monuments, Americans and foreigners alike gravitate towards its postmodern ruins as a means of seeing a true anachronism: ruins created before their time was meant to be up. What is the line between beauty and decay, which is so often blurred in the context of Detroit? I will examine photography that prominently features the deterioration of the motor city through a formal lens, hoping to reveal what lurks uncomfortably beneath the surface in our aesthetic pleasure. Through this investigation, I will illuminate a visual and psychological rationing for beauty in the ruins that the United States has had a direct hand in creating through social and political practices. It is in this light that I approach the aesthetics of contemporary ruins: no longer as a teenager exploring the boundaries between life and death, but instead as an art historian interested in the borders between subjective visual delight in architectural temporality.


The term “ruin porn” has been applied to these photographs; artist James Griffeon claims to have coined the phrase, saying in an interview with Vice, “These photographers are the worst. Basically the only thing they’re interested in shooting is ruin porn.”[12] When Griffeon made that statement, he was referring to his newfound fame after ViceUK ran a series of his images of Detroit –all of which were examples of ruin porn (Fig. 6).


Fig. 6. Griffeon, James. Untitled, 2009. Color photograph.

From: Vice Magazine, “School’s Out Forever,” 2 February, 2009.

Available from: (accessed 10 April, 2016).




In the image I have selected from “School’s Out Forever,” trash threatens to overwhelm what was presumably a school gymnasium.[13]  Natural light pores in from an upper atrium, and a small plant has sprouted through garbage. Griffeon’s suggestion that ruin photographers capitalize on exploitation is quite strange and hypocritical. He can be seen to do the same in this image. Similarly, WIRED Magazine noticed the trend of photographers taking advantage of Detroit’s man-made decay, writing in 2012 that, “As a symbol of the U.S. economy in general, even before the crash of 2008, Motor City has been the subject of much ‘ruin porn’ – photography that fetishizes urban decay.”[14] The audience for such images is so vast that it provides a valuable revenue source for many magazines, and the temptation to run these images, while they are not particularly newsworthy, is so great that publications gratify these audiences as a quick way to easy cash.


Griffeon’s usage of the term “ruin porn” does not hold water when interrogated. Writer Mark Binelli says that, “Ruin porn was generally assessed the same way as with the other kind, with you-know-it-when-you-see-it subjectivity.”[15] Others, such as sociologists Paul Draus and Juliette Roddy, rather poetically define the genre as “the visual objects of the ghost-chaser’s gaze.”[16] There is a strange ambivalence around the definition of ruin porn in the very publications which publish these images, circulating them widely throughout the internet for passive consumption without much care as to which artist produced them. This speaks to both the complexity that surrounds the pictures themselves as well as the larger public’s attraction to them. Ruin porn is a genre that proves difficult to explain, as wide-ranging and applicable a term as there ever was for art. The only thing these images have in common is their creation in the twenty-first century. However, the pictorial depiction of ruins was a hobby for many before the twentieth century and, as we shall see, one which has its roots in the eighteenth century romanticism.


The term “ruins” conjures the great abandoned stonework of Ancient Rome. It is no mistake that photographs of Detroit have gained this moniker of ruin porn, as one popular vantage point, Michigan Central Station (Fig. 7), was modeled after the Baths of Caracalla (Fig. 8).[17]


Fig. 7. Marchand, Yves and Romain Meffre, Michigan Central Station. From: Carr. “We Apologise for the Decay,” 2013.

Color photograph.

 The Economist, July 28, 2013. Available from: (accessed: 7 April 2016).


Fig. 8. Roman, Late Empire. Baths of Caracalla: view from south through Caladrium, 216 (photo 1996).

Available from: ARTStor, (accessed 7 April, 2016).


When comparing the two venues, the viewer can see they are similar in their vast, open areas flanked by monumental columns. Both are imposing feats of architecture showcasing the grandeur of the state and its philanthropists. American progressivists’ modeling of their buildings on ancient European monuments was, “in part a defensive reaction against the condescension of British writers and travelers who considered it [America] devoid of aesthetic or historical interest, especially when judged from the Anglo-centric standpoint of the ‘picturesque.’”[18] Indeed, the very European notion of the picturesque requires the presence of a decaying man-made structure in order to separate it from the bland genre of landscape painting.[19] The New York Times writes of the progressive founders of Detroit that, “[i]t would surely shock the creators to learn that these buildings became symbols of failure.”[20] These creators were railroad industrialists such as the Vanderbilt family, and newspaper publishers William Henry Hearst and James E. Scripps. They were creators of the grand Detroit Theatre and the endowers of establishments such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), whose collection in recent years has been under scrutiny by the city’s board and outside art critics alike. Many are wondering whether the DIA’s vast trove of aesthetic riches should be sold off to aid Detroit in minimizing its debt and pending bankruptcy.[21],[22]  Sociologist George Steinmetz writes of Detroit that, “[t]he city’s ruination is the result of racialized disinvestment and relocation, and the exodus of more than a million people to the suburbs and beyond since the 1950s.”[23] Michigan Central Station and the DIA are evidence of Detroit’s once-glamorous status, rivaling other industrialist cities and art collections, but these symbols of progress now sit in decay. These two different yet still precarious emblems of nation-building speak to an exodus of citizens that, 60 years on, continues to affect Detroit in a myriad of ways.


And yet, people continue to flock back to Detroit to photograph it. Indeed, there is another viewpoint implicit in the quote from Griffeon: namely, that the people interested in gaining access to ruin porn come from outside the cities experiencing such decay. Based on interviewers with day-tripping photographers in Detroit, Steinmetz says that those looking to experience the ruins of the city are predominately suburbanites. He writes, “[their] dominant emotional condition is a simple nostalgia for Fordism, a desire to relive the past, to re-experience the prosperous metropolis as it is remembered or has been described.”[24] When considered in tandem with a growing population of professional photographers, Detroit’s abandoned structures can be viewed as both a touristic vocation and vacation. Writing for, journalist Siobhan Lyons notes that, “For certain people, ruin remains a concept, not a reality.”[25] Perhaps Griffeon’s observation is accurate, as indeed, America and Western Europe both have ethically fraught histories with regard to ruin tourism and its pictorial output.


Throughout the late eighteenth century and into the mid nineteenth century, Americans made frequent pilgrimages abroad to depict ruins.[26] Art historian Paolo Magagnoli writes,


Contemporary artists’ fascination for ruins is hardly new: an aesthetics of ruins dominated late neoclassicism and early romanticism (e.g. in the etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi), and, although in a much more deconstructive and ironic mode, this fascination was also significantly manifest in the 1960s land art (e.g. the sculptural work of Robert Smithson).[27]


Artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi was famed in the seventeenth century for his depictions of Roman ruins. Piranesi’s Hadrian’s Villa shows an ancient ruin with plants seeping through each crevice, desperate to colonize the space in their own way (Fig. 9).


Fig. 9. Piranesi, Giovanni Battista. Ruins of a Gallery with Statues at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli (Ruinen einer Statuengalerie in der Villa Hadrians bei Tivoli [Rovine d’una Galleria di Statue nella Villa Adriana a Tivoli]), 1769. Etching, 18 x 22 ¾ (46 x 58 cm).

 Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Available from: ARTStor, (accessed 7 April, 2016).


However, Piranesi is far from the only tourist who traveled to ruins for the express purpose of admiring and depicting them.

“Slumming” sprang up as a tourist industry in Victorian England, with guidebooks pointing visitors to the most “notorious” districts among safe yet salacious routes.[28] However, there were ostensibly altruistic aims to such slum tourism: it was considered a necessity in Victorian England for anyone who wished to speak on social issues to take regular visits to the slums, and thereby learn of the issues affecting its inhabitants.[29] Among these slum visitors was artist Gustave Doré, whose etched illustrations accompanied London: A Pilgrimage by Blanchard Jerrold.[30] These illustrations bear striking resemblance, even today, to America’s own post-industrial landscape (Fig. 10 and Fig. 11).[31]


Fig. 10. Doré, Gustav. Over London by Rail. 1872. Etching.
From: Jerrold, Blanchard. London, A Pilgrimage. London, UK: Anthem Press, 2005.
Available from: ARTStor, (accessed 3 April, 2016).


Fig. 11. View of Baltimore from the Amtrak train.

 From: Baltimore Magazine, October 2009, page 114.


The same dividers between alleyway backyards remain, situated below the small rowhomes with equally small windows. Today, similar images abound as a sight from the Amtrak Train as it passes by a different American city in the throes of post-industrial transition: Baltimore. Furthering the European similarity with regard to a preoccupation with ruins, it is known that eighteenth century English architects took to creating fake ruins for clients. Writer Brian Dillon and art critic Gilda Williams write on this phenomenon, saying that,


[architects] were commissioned to erect fragments of monasteries and mediaeval castles in pleasure gardens not only for their beauty, but also because their patrons delighted in seeing the outmoded institutions behind these half-buildings – the papacy and feudal aristocracy – in visible collapse.[32]


The voyeuristic pleasure gained by watching buildings decay – even if it was not real – is a psychological factor that may influence the public aesthetic purview regarding the visual consumption of Detroit’s dissent from beauty and progressivism to violence and decline.


In America, artists such as Jacob Riis took it upon themselves to document the growing horrors of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, effectively birthing the progressive movement and creating a social safety net for citizens who needed it most. Riis photographed people in a ruinous landscape, individuals for whom life’s normalcy and utter banality lay in its unforgiving surroundings. The images Riis shot are full chaos, and simultaneously, of contradiction in that they were created in a city of unimaginable wealth. In Bandit’s Roost, Riis peers down an alleyway populated by mustachioed men with baseball bats and bowler caps (Fig. 12).


Fig. 12. Riis, Jacob, Bandit’s Roost. Silver gelatin print, 1890.

From: Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, 24.



The residents of the alley, living in poverty, peer suspiciously out the window at the photographer, guarding the entrance to their realm. The social outrage sparked by these photographs led directly to welfare programs that improved the lives of the individuals that Riis depicted. However, lest we paint Riis as a true progressive, it is important to note that he was not immune to racial stereotypes. Captions found in the photographer’s description of “Jewtown” show this all too well: “Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account.”[33] While Riis is often revered as a true progressivist who did not succumb to the same degree of racism as that which affected his peers, his images still contain what we today look on as an ugly, intolerant mindset.[34] Oddly enough, he shares his racist viewpoint with today’s contemporary photographers of Detroit, many whom blame the deterioration of their city on its black inhabitants.[35] The idea that such attitudes towards race continue in twenty-first century America is disturbing, but the parallels between images by Riis and contemporary ruin porn are undeniable and telling. They both propagate a narrative of urban decline as brought on to formerly grand cities by specific classes and groups of people.


 The aims of slum tourism and Jacob Riis alike were noble on their surfaces. Both Victorian England and turn-of-the-century America took welfare reform seriously. The mass appeal of ruins formerly coincided with ostensibly altruistic public aims. Depictions of ruins prior to the twenty-first century differ markedly from today’s preoccupation with the genre, which focuses on empty spaces devoid of citizens. Houses are not often pictured, but rather, large structures such as theaters or factories are preferred photographic venues. Take, for example, Andrew Moore’s Aurora, Detroit (Fig. 1). A square-framed brick Victorian building, three stories high with two sets of bay window columns, sits on a street corner. Several windows are boarded up. Just out of the picture frame, a demolished block rests in its brick-laden chaos. Next to the focal point, a closed deli with hand painted signage and a chain fence that disappears down an alleyway. Telephone lines split the picture into thirds, running horizontally across the building. An old-fashioned streetlamp also slices the picture vertically on its right-third. Overhead, stormy clouds bring ominous gray-blue tones to the picture. Most importantly, a fire hydrant sits on the corner, next to the street and stop signs, spraying water into the air indiscriminately. A white haze envelops the picture diagonally from the bottom right to the top left, as if a foggy, gossamer fabric has been pulled over the building. The mist adds an element of amorphous beauty not otherwise present in this stagnant picture of rigid lines. The street in the immediate foreground changes from the black asphalt the viewer knows it to be, instead to a multicolor symphony, transformed by the reflections of water on pavement. No people are present. The viewer is witnessing a private moment, a rendezvous between an abandoned building and loving fire-hydrant. The lack of a fire – or indeed, a fire truck – speaks to the chaos of Detroit. To think that a street corner in a city could be devoid of people seems quite strange, and in turn expresses a kind beauty that only occurs when individuals are not involved.


Similarly, a close analysis of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel from 2006 can be rewarding (Fig. 2). The viewer sees a typical image of a ballroom from the early twentieth century. Soaring, arched ceilings, a grand piano, many chairs, and massive windows are present. But this room has been abandoned for at least fifty years. The piano and chairs are toppled. The paint has acquired a patina that can only be attributed to the elements. Natural light pours into this slightly overexposed scene. Open French doors, just visible at the picture’s right edge, invite the viewer to explore other unknown, chaotic places. Debris lines the floor, evidence of a building crumbling. It appears that no one has entered or left this place in a long time, and a quiet, desolate scene has suddenly been found by the photographers. The beauty of the purple blue floor, coupled with yellow sunlight that has turned the walls and ceilings alike to its burnt hues, lends a complimentary contrast to the view. An expansive lens, positioned in the corner of this ballroom, allows the vast interior space to fill the image. The high ceilings cloak the viewer in the abandoned scene, allowing them to feel a sort of intimacy and familiarity.


In these photos, we can see that ruin porn photography adheres to a strict series of aesthetic decisions. What can we say these images have in common? They are all expertly cropped: nothing from the shot exists to give the viewer a sense of place, being, or community. These pictures are devoid of people. They typically feature an abundance of natural light; these photographers know that their shots depend on their ability to show viewers the centuries-old dust particles as they linger in the air. Some authors have noted the “frontality” of these images, which is the maximizing effect employed by photographers wherein they fill the image space with the site of decay.[36] Furthermore, there is a clear repetition of similar spaces. Detroit’s Packard Plant is an ever-present favorite for many ruin porn photographers, and with good reason, as it has been cited as having “more influence on twentieth-century architecture than all the acanthus-leaf-bedizened art museums in the Western world.”[37] Extreme detail techniques, like the use of HDR cameras, show a clear privileging of the image’s commercial appeal, as detail is needed for when these images are enlarged for publication. Finally, we can identify ruin porn as having significant psychological impact on others’ perceptions of an urban place.


After having outlined the above features of ruin porn, its exact definition, while elusive, perhaps is more connotative in usage: it delineates the type of artist who takes these images and the kind of viewer consuming them, each of whom are starkly different from the residents who see the images as a backdrop to their everyday lives, and who view the dissemination of these images in the media as inherent to the shaping of their reality. Architectural historian Valeria Federeghi writes that, “The term ‘ruin porn’ perfectly embodies this controversy between insider and outsider, voyeur and engaged person, and it is widely used to refer to sensational photographs of the ruins of the city.”[38] Ruin porn is dichotomy; it embodies the tension between old and new, rich and poor, and the structures society allows to decay, as compared with those structures permitted to continue existing in their full splendor.


These pictures speak to abandonment of Detroit. Magagnoli speculates that, “We could view this desire to revisit failed utopian projects in the past as symptomatic of the exhaustion of the utopian impulse after the disasters of the twentieth century.”[39] His quote speaks to the lack of a humanistic element in these new images, as well as their creation after the fall of the progressive era. Ruin porn is produced at a moment when the rotting architecture of a bygone era has been made particularly visible. It thereby leads viewers to consider the collapse of the auto industry, which has affected many cities in the rust belt. In truth, this “collapse” has far more to do with the outsourcing of jobs by the auto industry. The mission of these enterprises was originally to better the people in the heartland of America, but has since condensed to a more narrow-minded focus on profitability.[40] This reorganization of priorities has had a damning effect on the Midwest. Indeed, social critic James Howard Kunstler describes Detroit in its current climate as such:


[t]he city that spawned the auto age is the place where everything that could go wrong with a city, did go wrong, in large part because of the car. Until a decade ago, Detroit was the sixth largest city in America and one of the wealthiest industrial cities on the planet…the era of the car-based economy is drawing to a close because we can no longer endure its costs. Detroit, in its present necrotic state, illustrates these costs clearly.[41]


As the auto industry exhales its manufactured-in-the-heartland death rattle, some facts can no longer be ignored. The debris of its factories, the remains of its freeways that split unsuspecting cities in two, and the detritus of its overall lack of transparency in relation to decisions which directly affected Detroit, are all on display in ruin porn. These causes served to accelerate the downward motion of the industry’s former homeland. The echoes of machines once worked and maintained, but now abandoned, are portrayed in dusty graves by ruin porn photographers.


The lack of humanity in these photos speaks to an overarching aesthetic rather than moral goal in the minds of the artists who compose these images. From a psychological viewpoint, there are several reasons why viewers enjoy looking at these images nearly as much as the photographers enjoy creating them. The most poignant is the hedonic paradox concept, which holds that people enjoy doing things they know they should not logically gain pleasure from, such as staying up late, or eating a hot pepper. As Fast Company editor Eric Jaffe puts it, “pleasure challenges the logic of the brain, and wins.”[42] Similarly, the “tragedy paradox” finds that humans derive pleasure from sad experiences, such as watching an unhappy movie, or looking at a depressing painting. Perhaps seeing beauty in life’s sadness is a means of distancing oneself from depressing events. Psychologically, it seems, people are hardwired to feel pleasure when looking at these images, despite no discernable “beauty” in the everyday sense of the word. Ruins prompt their viewers to observe and confront the duality of beauty and sadness. Writing on the ruins found in Germany after World War II, historian Julia Hell says that,


Scrutinizing the texture of the empirical world, describing the rubble left by the war – and in the process transforming debris into ruins – is a way to resolve the fundamental destabilization of the subject of visual perception that is so central to all forms of realism.[43]


Contemporary viewers and creators of ruin porn in post-industrial Detroit are trying to reach a similar visual resolution. In these images, they find the beauty that rests between decay and a return to nature. It is this contrast that embodies our aesthetic attraction to such images. Cultural and urban historian Keith Hetherington writes that, “What has passed still has the power to haunt us because it has not fully gone away and because it can continue to come back – out of time but revealed in space.”[44] Detroit as a city occupies a permanently hovering anti-space, a zone where once great buildings might be permitted to return to their original glory, but will likely continue to decay. A particular form of aesthetic melancholy arises from such inflicted spatio-social confusion. Anthropologist Liviu Chelcea asks, “If postindustrial spaces elude not only planned usage, but also the domination of a single unplanned function, how may one narrate them and construct a coherent representation?”[45] It is precisely this lack of a definable zone that is aesthetically pleasing to the voyeurs who observe and create ruin porn. These structures live and die, exist and decay, in an area between public and private. Their function is currently unnamable as they have been forsaken. Their rediscovery can feel both personal and predestined for ruin porn enthusiasts.


Another key factor in the aesthetic appeal of ruin porn images is the prevalence of nature, poking through cracks in foundations and walls, growing in unlikely places. In writing on the decay of Paris, which I shall examine in depth later in my essay, philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin speaks of “botanizing on the asphalt.”[46] As early as 1903, art historian and philosopher Alois Riegl noticed the relationship between nature and ruins, writing,

[i]f the aesthetic effect of a monument, from the standpoint of age value, arises from signs of decay…the result would be that the cult of age value would not only find no interest in the preservation of the monument in its unaltered state, but it would even find such restoration contrary to its interests.


Riegl describes how change to a piece of architecture that has started to become a ruin (or, as he says, monument) with the goal of creating a more pristine condition for it, runs counter to the aesthetic imperatives that viewers experience when they look upon a decaying building. This may explain, if only in part, why Detroit’s abandoned buildings have been left to deteriorate for so long, as those who viewed them engaged in upholding an aesthetic paradigm of allowing nature to flourish in man-made spaces. Thus, for Benjamin, Riegl, and other writers alike, it is this “botanization” that marks the place as a ruin. The architecture has been invaded by nature in a way that speaks to timelessness and a lack of humanity. Images such as those created by Vergara, Moore, Marchand & Meffre all fall into the trap of erasing of a city’s inhabitants by privileging the natural elements that overtake abandoned spaces.


The beauty of these spaces cannot, however, be communicated solely through photographs. Many now make actual pilgrimages to these meccas of the country’s forgotten past. Ruin porn achieves a fragile balance as it shows viewers a newfound detritus in a post-industrial landscape. The ruins of Pompeii are revered for archaeologists and laymen alike; now the United States can elevate its ruins to the same status as Pompeii, saying, “we, too, have made ruins; they, too, are beautiful and haunting.” Unlike Pompeii, Detroit’s ruins have yet to be widely embraced for the melancholic objects that they are. This detachment allows the ruins of Detroit to hover in the space of the unknowable. Geographer Dan Swanton writes that, “The ruin and what remains of the industrial past is a fracture in the postindustrial landscape; this afterimage captures the melancholia and a sense of shame that an industrial past is being lost.”[48] Ruin porn forms part of America’s current narrative, but only if viewers themselves are far enough removed from the city for these images not to produce a scarring effect. The citizens of Detroit, on the other hand, experience the pain inflicted by these images all too readily.


The precise place that gives rise to a ruin porn image is not important in and of itself. The images function symbolically as moments which showcase decline but are not necessarily viewed as such by the casual, outside observer. Photographers utilize images of contemporary ruins to tell a narrative of exploring a forgotten America, and these pictures in turn function as symbols of urban detritus, nostalgia, and a sort of quiet beauty, unfound and undisturbed for years, existing in a timeless state until a photographer came upon them. Yet in this way the creators of ruin porn participate in the long-mourned “lie” of photography, in which the artist is presumed to have simply stumbled upon this magical space, and photographed it without alteration. But, of course, there is alteration in deliberate cropping, enhancement of detail, and staging – all of which are tactics that a photographer, “alone”[49] in an abandoned setting, can choose whether or not to share with the viewer.[50] Furthermore, ruin photography plays into the art historical trope of depicting a timeless space, forever unchanged; this, too, is a lie, as these buildings are constantly changing under stress from the feet of urban explorers.


A purely aesthetic interpretation of ruin porn risks saying nothing of the moral peril to which such voyeuristic, active participation in a decaying city’s image may allude. Detroit resident Marsha Cusic, quoted in a 2012 New York Times article, talks of the “significant psychological trauma inflicted on the children of Detroit” by the “devotees of ruined buildings.” She says that, “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[51] In her critique, Cusic shares the feelings of many other residents who say that their city is not being portrayed accurately, and certainly not being depicted as they themselves view it. Archaeologist Tom Killion, who works at the near-to-Detroit Wayne University, says that, “The place [Detroit] is more than this hulking train station ruin. Detroit needs to tell its own story.”[52] Detroit’s residents thus have a rallying cry for photographers to depict their city in a different way. It seems that these pleas have yet to be heeded by artists such as Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.


Ruin porn grants agency to those who can travel, who can put themselves in the danger of going into hazardous buildings with a relatively low level of fear, and to those who have the expensive equipment to take these images in the first place. The typically foreign status of these photographers means that Detroiters are effectively barred from telling their own story of the space which they inhabit. The actual citizens of Detroit, edited out of ruin porn photography, are non-existent; their very being is eliminated. Urban cultural geographer Nate Millington argues as such, writing that ruin porn can “naturalize the city’s decline and erase its residents through a focus on the city’s aesthetic appeal.”[53] Outsiders have a more deliberate say in what the city is and is not. In a very real way, this silencing of Detroit’s citizens can be observed in the city’s own government, which has been usurped by an unelected emergency manager. The silence inflicted upon the people of Detroit is aesthetically and morally appalling, and it is a central tenement which surrounds ruin porn that cannot go unexamined. Ruin porn is conflict: both aesthetically and ethically.

In keeping with the typical politics of oppression, art critics and artists alike have been similarly dismissive of the pain that such photographs perpetuate among the citizens of Detroit. In writing on his first time viewing Marchand and Meffre’s work, photographer Robert Polidori describes his reaction as such: “The work rightly deserves a book I thought, and I wondered whether, once published it would be received with the cynical cries of ‘detritus porn’ which has become the derogatory epithet of those whose taste favours fashion-inspired self-constructed psycho-dramas.”
[54] The dismissive manner that characterizes Polidori’s response may well constitute a type of cultural gas lighting on his part. To see the people who suffer and live with the urban decay of these buildings everyday treated as such is distastefully unpleasant at best. The best adjective for these images, and the sentiments which they evoke in art critics who staunchly adhere to a singularly aesthetic interpretation of them, is dangerous.


Citizens of Detroit, through their systematic erasure and very real departure from the city, are portrayed as actively complicit and enabling the current state of these ruins. “Detroit’s decline is often portrayed as more than a relative economic or demographic trajectory, but as something fated or destined, somehow linked to its essential character,”[55] write Draus and Roddy. Images of ruin porn soothe American anxieties around the decay of their cities and their own complicit role in urban deterioration. If a city is “fated” or “destined,” to its current crumbling state, then no amount of human intervention, previous or current, can save Detroit from its fate as an abandoned playground.[56],[57] Furthermore, the timelessness that such images embody assists viewers in ignoring any complicity they may have in Detroit’s present, and this is furthered by the “invasion” of the natural world literally uprooting decaying structures. Nate Millington writes that, “These images help to obscure Detroit’s present by pulling on conceptions of the natural world as that which exists outside of human life.”[58] Regression to a natural, timeless, primitive state forever rears its head in art history, from Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti to contemporary images of Detroit. Artists showcasing an unchanging world in which no one, not photographer nor politician, is responsible for the oppression of a people or city; nor, in this scenario, can the responsibility for the stagnant, uncompromising and imposing shadow of an abandoned building bemoaned by citizens but beloved by tourists, be placed on the shoulders of any one party.


In ruin porn, the factor of timelessness is furthered by a lack of narrative. Artist Andrew Moore has been criticized heavily for engaging in this tactic. Detroit Disassembled: Arnold Nursing Home offers an example of abandoned space that has been left with the trace of a human hand in graffiti which reads, “[g]od has left Detroit” (Fig. 13).


Fig. 13. Moore, Andrew, Detroit Disassembled: Arnold Nursing Home, 7 Mile Road. Color photograph, 2008.

Available from: ARTStor, (accessed 10 April 2016).


An abject misery can be discerned; whoever sprayed those letters on the wall is long gone, and all that remains is chaotic garbage through which plants peek, reclaiming the space via botanization. The viewer can imagine this place as existing in a stagnate, unchanging time. In writing on his work, Moore admits to chasing a feeling of immutability, saying, “Detroit’s transfiguration has led it beyond decay into a surreal landscape, where the past is receding so quickly that time itself seems to be distorted.”[59]  Writing in Guernica Magazine, John Patrick Leary says that, “[w]hat is most unsettling – but also most troubling – in Moore’s photos is their resistance to any narrative content or explication.”[60] Much like the photographers of ruin porn themselves, viewers of Moore’s work are parachuted into unfamiliar surroundings, devoid of context outside of his two dimensional representations. The beauty of Moore’s images encourages the viewer to not look further, but instead to be gratified solely by the content residing within the photograph itself. Leary, who particularly takes issue with this lack of context, writes that,

[s]o much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origin, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.[61]


For Leary, the ruin porn portrayal of Detroit presents an unforgivable and imaginary status which has been hoisted upon the city by its would-be aesthetic oppressors. Ruin porn thus signals a chasm of understanding between elite photographers and the citizens of Detroit, who remain in the city by choice or through circumstance. It is this lack of context and usurpation of authority, as well as a claim to the story, which desiccates the narratives available for Detroit’s residents. The city cannot write its own history, and ruin porn conceives that outsiders are in a better position to tell this narrative than those on the ground who experience ruins as their everyday surroundings. The depth of this gap in understanding is an integral feature of postmodernity which ruin porn photography, in turn, exacerbates, fueling the dualistic nature between its portrayal of beauty and its ethical ugliness.


The drastic differentiation in reception between Detroit locals and art critics is another one of the hallmarks of ruin porn. Radically dissimilar perceptions of the images in question fuel the dualistic nature of the genre. This is to say that not all Detroit natives are dismissive of such photographs. Art critic and former Detroit resident Philip Levine writes, of the photographs by Andrew Moore:


[t]he city that I thought had nowhere to go and hence had stopped changing, that I believed had stepped out of history and simply begun to disappear one block at a time while no one noticed, has been caught in Moore’s work in the small daily acts of disguise and revision. And while it may seem ridiculous to say, the photographs document a new growth.[62]

Levine’s passage recognizes both the nostalgia and the aesthetic value inherent in such photographs. Additionally, Levine is diametrically opposed to Leary’s earlier criticism of Moore’s work: where Leary sees only timelessness and static images, Levine sees change.  Camillo Vergara writes of his work that, “[i]n contrast to those who see these ruins as failures and eyesores that are best forgotten, I record urban decay with a combined sense of respect, loss, and admiration for its peculiar beauty.”[63] Here, too, Vergara displays his reverence for these spaces and the stories they might contain; in doing so, he exhibits a sort of respect for the ghosts of Detroit’s grand industrial past.


Vergara’s veneration mimics a fascination with ruins shared by many scholars and artists alike. Toward the end of his life, Walter Benjamin undertook an essay which has posthumously been dubbed The Arcades Project. Never completed, its publishing provides evidence of Benjamin undertaking a historiography of Paris via the study of its detritus, wherein he writes, “With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”[64] Extrapolating on Benjamin’s thesis, Dan Swanton writes that,


[t]he descent of the Paris arcades into decay and seediness by the 1920s exposed the hollowness and the frailty of promises of progress and consumer happiness, and an opportunity to jar the collective from a phantasmagoria or dream world of false consciousness…[65]


Detroit’s own descent can be said to parallel, or, perhaps, to be the pinnacle, of the descent which Benjamin encountered as early as 1927 in France. Detroit’s abandoned factories, train stations, and theaters expose the hollowness of the promise of progressivism as achievable through rampant capitalism. They reveal the detachment of railroad and robber barons who put up the funds for such projects, then later fled the very city which they had remade in their image. Extrapolating on this, George Steinmetz writes that,


Just as the rise of Fordism created twentieth-century Detroit, the demise of Fordism has been responsible for Detroit’s extreme impoverishment and for peculiarities of its ruination, such as the large numbers of abandoned high-rise office buildings in the downtown. Detroit is thus in many ways the ultimate museum and ruin of Fordism.[66]


America, having been sold progressivism through capitalism, is waking up to the dreary reality of decay in an appropriately surrealist landscape. Perhaps what is most aesthetically appealing about these images is the contradiction that they embody. The images are aesthetically striking, yet ethically fraught. Chelcea writes that ruin porn photographs, “combine fragments of planned and unplanned action, geological, human and biological agency, natural and human-made ruination.”[67]  These buildings embody a beauty that can only come from decay, and thereby provide an interesting parallel with the city of Detroit, which, after the fire of 1805, adopted the motto: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus: We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”[68] From the rubble and detritus left over of the progressive era, ruin porn was born; arising from the ashes of Detroit is an industry based on the very beauty of what has been abused.


More than simply offering an alternative interpretation of detritus, ruin porn challenges viewers to create a new concept of urban space. Millington writes that, “The kinds of ecologies and spatialities emerging from places like Detroit suggest that we need to rethink how we conceptualize urban places.”[69] The abandoned buildings of the city offer a new kind of landscape comprised of urban ghosts. Ruin porn proposes a vital and necessarily fertile ground with which Detroit can create its new identity, as long as creators and viewers remain mindful of the ethical quandaries that accompany these images. It is imperative to be wary of the constant tension-filled push and pull between beauty and ugliness that ruin porn’s images make apparent, as well as exacerbate, in postmodern culture.






an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, Winter 2016/2017, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] Crang and Travlou, “The City and Topologies of Memory,” 174.

[2] Leary, “Detroitism.”

[3] Chayka, “Detroit Ruin Porn and the Fetish for Decay.”

[4] Posey, “What Separates Ruin Porn from Important Documentary Photography?”

[5] Romain Meffre and Yves Marchand are represented by galleries in Paris, Amsterdam, London, and Stolkholm; Andrew Moore is represented by galleries in New York; Atlanta, GA; Birmingham, MI; and Amsterdam; Camilo Jose Vergara is represented by a gallery in Santa Monica, CA, in addition to housing his personal photography archive at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.5,6,7,8

[6] Library of Congress, “Camilo José Vergara Photographs.”

[7] Rose Gallery, “Artists: Camilo Jose Vergara.”

[8] Moore, “Contact • Andrew L Moore.”

[9] Meffre and Marchand, “Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre Photography.”

[10] Sugrue, “City of Ruins.”

[11] Swaminathan, “The Pre-Motor City,” 34.

[12] Morton, “Something, Something, Something, Detroit.”

[13] Griffeon, “School’s Out Forever | VICE | United States.”

[14] Brook, “Photos of Detroit Need to Move Beyond Ruin Porn.”

[15] Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, 272.

[16] Draus and Roddy, “Ghosts, Devils, and the Undead City Det  roit and the Narrative of Monstrosity,” 5.

[17] Binelli, “How Detroit Became the World Capital of Staring at Abandoned Old Buildings.”

[18] Yablon, Untimely Ruins, 43.

[19] Woodward, In Ruins, 9.

[20] Bennet, “A Tribute To Ruin Irks Detroit.”

[21] Detroit Free Press, “DIA Collection Could Be Sold For Detroit Creditors.”

[22] Schjeldahl, “Should Detroit Sell Its Art?”

[23] Steinmetz, “Colonial Melancholy and Fordist Nostalgia: The Ruinscapes of Namibia and Detroit,” 295.

[24] Ibid., 298.

[25] Lyons, “What ‘Ruin Porn’ Tells Us about Ruins -- and Porn.”

[26] Yablon, Untimely Ruins, 40.

[27] Magagnoli, Documents of Utopia, 25.

[28] Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, 16.

[29] Ibid., 6.

[30] Jerrold, London.

[31] Yablon, Untimely Ruins, 192.

[32] Dillon and Williams, “It Was What It Was: Modern Ruins,” 96.

[33] Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 130.

[34] O’Donnell, “Pictures vs. Words?,” 7.

[35] Steinmetz, “Colonial Melancholy and Fordist Nostalgia: The Ruinscapes of Namibia and Detroit,” 299.

[36] Federighi, “Ruin Porn as Collective Memory: A Counter Coverage of Detroit,” 22.

[37] Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, 67.

[38] Federighi, “Ruin Porn as Collective Memory: A Counter Coverage of Detroit,” 21.

[39] Magagnoli, Documents of Utopia, 26.

[40] Leary, “Detroitism.”

[41] Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, 190.

[42] Jaffe, “6 Scientific Reasons You Can’t Stop Looking At Ruin Porn.”

[43] Hell, “Ruins Travel: Orphic Journeys through 1940s Germany,” 126.

[44] Hetherington, “Phantasmagoria/Phantasm Agora,” 25.

[45] Chelcea, “Postindustrial Ecologies,” 185.

[46] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 372.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Swanton, “Afterimages of Steel Dortmund,” 269.

[49] Kurth and MacDonald, “Volume of Abandoned Homes ‘Absolutely Terrifying.’”

     [50] The photographer is only alone in the context of this myth; these structures often provide habitats for homeless communities, thus disrupting the narrative of the lone artist.43

[51] Binelli, “How Detroit Became the World Capital of Staring at Abandoned Old Buildings.”

[52] Swaminathan, “The Pre-Motor City,” 37.

[53] Millington, “Post-Industrial Imaginaries: Nature, Representation, and Ruin in Detroit, Michigan,” 2.

[54] Polidori, “Foreword,” 7.

[55] Draus and Roddy, “Ghosts, Devils, and the Undead City Detroit and the Narrative of Monstrosity,” 1.

     [56] This notion of an abandoned playground, it is interesting to note, was proposed as a solution to help the city’s tourism industry by Camilo Vergara.54

[57] Bennet, “A Tribute To Ruin Irks Detroit.”

[58] Millington, “Post-Industrial Imaginaries: Nature, Representation, and Ruin in Detroit, Michigan,” 3.

[59] Moore, “Retro Punks and Pin-Up Girls,” 119.

[60] Leary, “Detroitism.”

[61] Ibid.

[62] Moore and Levine, Andrew Moore: Detroit Disassembled, 114.

[63] Vergara, American Ruins, 11.

[64] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 13.

[65] Swanton, “Afterimages of Steel Dortmund,” 264–65.

[66] Steinmetz, “Colonial Melancholy and Fordist Nostalgia: The Ruinscapes of Namibia and Detroit,” 314.

[67] Chelcea, “Postindustrial Ecologies,” 185.

[68] Linebaugh, “Rising From The Ashes: The Origins Of Detroit’s Motto.”

[69] Millington, “Post-Industrial Imaginaries: Nature, Representation, and Ruin in Detroit, Michigan,” 3.





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