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Ruin Porn

Packard Plant

The Packard Plant. Yes, Detroit really does look like that. But not entirely. Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported by Albert Duce.

I had an hour to kill in Oxford this weekend, so I did some browsing in Blackwell’s on Broad Street, where I found a copy of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s 2010 photo book The Ruins of Detroit. While I had thumbed through the online version several times before, this was the first copy I had actually seen in the flesh. It’s really too big and too expensive for anyone I know who’s interested in Detroit to own. It’s not break-the-bank expensive. It’s nonetheless the sort of luxury item that’s only worth it if a bunch of other factors fall into place: a nice coffee table; a lack of need to move frequently for school or work; a group of “edgy” Bobo friends to impress and who never spill their drinks; and a lack of any actually edgy friends to give you a hard time for owning it. It’s a sumptuously beautiful book, though, in case you’re wondering.

You’ve probably heard the term “ruin porn” before. In case you haven’t, it connotes an exploitative, dissociative, fetishized, and reality-distorting visual indulgence in the sorrow of decaying–yet still living–places. But the human beings who live in such places stay out of frame. They and their stories are not of interest to the genre and its consumers. Marchand and Meffre’s work has been accused of being ruin porn. The New Republic even went on to call their images “good art” but “rotten photojournalism.”

I’ve been wary of the term “ruin porn.” I’ve seen it function mainly as a discussion-killer, lobbed from behind a wall of rosy-eyed denial: “Detroit’s not really like that. There’s all this great stuff and all these great people here. That shot of the old, vacant Cass Tech building completely ignores the brand-new replacement across the street.” They have a point. Detroit isn’t entirely like that. There’s a lot going right in Detroit that seems to bore the media. But Detroit is very much like that, even if not entirely so. More importantly, very few if any places are anything like Detroit in that way, at that scale. There’s a story in Detroit’s crumbling buildings that needs telling and understanding. So let Detroit titillate like that, so long as it captivates long enough for the rest of the picture to come through.

In retrospect, I think I’d been naïve. As I took in The Ruins of Detroit–pictures of my mom’s old high school, my first ballpark, the hotel where I was married, and so on–this was the story that came to mind: Two Parisian kids went on safari, and did a technically superlative job of capturing the sorts of images that scores of Detroit art students have done for decades. The Parisians, having had the good fortune to be from Paris, flew back to a book deal–printed in Germany–and a slew of swell showings at prestigious galleries and museums. The Detroiters, having had the at-best-mixed fortune to be from Detroit, have instead usually had to suffer accusations of cliché by their fellow Detroiters. The Parisians made bank, because they were free to tell whatever story they needed to tell in order to reinforce the “edgy” self-image of their Bobo, nice-coffee-table-owning, and steady-drink-handed clientele. The Detroiters have struggled, meanwhile, because credibly telling the story that needs to be told and understood in a way that excites interest is a lifetime’s work.

Marchand and Meffre’s work bothers me less, still, than it did the The New Republic. Detroit is visually fascinating and impossible-seeming, most especially, I imagine, to Europeans. Europe and Detroit took wholly opposite paths out of the Second World War and through the latter half of the 20th Century: sudden cataclysm and then slow rebirth; prosperity and then a slow, accumulating piece-meal catastrophe. Even so, were it part of France, as it once was, Detroit still would be second in size only to Paris as an urban region, and third after Marseille as a stand-alone city. A half-abandoned city of that relative size, and with Detroit’s history, ought to be irresistible to any inquisitive person.

It’s instead the armchair adventurers who structure what I find to be a troubling narrative. Detroit is sexy as a very specific set of artistic concepts. Detroit is otherwise loathsome as an old-economy laggard. It’s the decaying abandoned buildings–not the well-kept inhabited ones, their inhabitants, or what they create–that seem to intrigue the most influential consumers. They’ll buy one version of Detroit while deriding the other. And it’s the self-destructive version that seems to have the better up-market appeal.

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