Regarding the Ruin of America

At home and abroad, the strange attraction of what Spain’s Yorokobu magazine calls ‘Ruin Porn’: images of the decayed ruins of America’s wrecked industrial heartland.

Detroit was what started it all. The proud Motor City, once the industrial epicenter of the United States, went into a tailspin in 1970, and has been slowly dying since then, agonizing. In 2013, it declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. Of the 1.9 million inhabitants who lived there in 1950, only 700,000 remain. And the media has exhibited it to the world.

Over the past years, this metropolitan disaster has attracted a lot of examination, thanks to the spectacular images produced by a number of photographers who have captured the singular beauty that is born of decline. From this a trend, Detroitism, has emerged, and a new kind of sensory pornorgraphy, Ruin Porn. One of the most popular practitioners is Matthew Christopher, [a photographer]who focuses not just on Detroit, but travels the United States registering architectural and urban abandonment. According to his website Abandoned America, his project does not have strictly aesthetic ends, but is an attempt to retain the history and essence of the abandoned places before (and after) they disappear. His Facebook page already has more than 52,000 followers. Why is Ruin Porn so popular? Because it shows the decline of the United States’ power.

American Ruin Porn is attractive because it openly shows a kind of ‘B-side’ of the great American city. For years, [the United States’]culture industry has bombarded us with big movies, television shows and photographs that show American life in all its splendor, ‘the American dream’. However, it turns out the United States, the world’s biggest exponent of capitalism, the standard for a certain socio-economic model, is portrayed in these images — a bit sensationalist and pornographic – in all its wretchedness. And the image of a shining 50s Ford is broken by splatters of paint and leaves the skeleton of the same Ford, abandoned 50 years later in a vacant lot.

We have lived dystopias through books like ‘Brave New World‘, ‘Fahrenheit 451‘ or ‘1984‘. We have been witnesses to many post-apocalyptic scenarios through film, like the recent ‘The Road‘ (based on a book by Cormac McCarthy) and ‘I Am Legend‘ (also, in fact, based on a book by Richard Matheson). Finding a real-world example of these fictional dystopic worlds turns out to be very attractive.

It is the same place; it is no longer the same place. Between the picture on the left and the picture on the right, time has passed, and many thing have stopped happening, in particular upkeep. The human hand. Human life. Without it, time imposes its own law most visibly, finally transforming everything, sooner or later, into dust. How many people played on that abandoned ball court at the left that was once the court on the right? In these ruins the squeak of the shoes on the parquet floor still echoes.

This phenomenon of geographic reminiscence is not so powerful in places that are not our own, but it is strong in familiar places, for example in our former homes. There is a scene in the film ‘Nebraska’: Although he does not want to believe it, the gruff Woody Grant can almost see himself playing as a child in that grey, rotting living room. The website Detroiturbex offers up a multitude of pictures like the one above where we can pull back the curtain and see the evolution of a place.

If ‘Ruin Porn’ reaffirms the inexorable nature of time, it also exercises its power by showing the transitory nature of human existence. We experience life, the world, from our own perspective. We are the point of reference, the standard for everything. The world is our world; life, our life. Because of this, we feel a kind of catharsis when we step out of our shoes and see the world and life from a global perspective. We realize our insignificance, our vulnerability, our transitory nature. We will be dust, and the world will continue. The images here are also from the Detroiturbex website, and they superimpose the students of this high school with what now remains.

See more of Detroiturbex’s urban explorations here. Read their FAQ, including acknowledgement that not everyone likes what they’re doing here. Yorokobu’s own photo gallery and this essay in the original Spanish can be seen here.

Alex Kafiristan Translated from Spanish for Interntional Boulevard by Brian Hagenbuch