Photography

Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?

east side sept3 2010 004 e1322611643845 Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?

View of Detroit’s East Side. Photo by Julia Reyes Taubman

Here are some insights the national media has had about Detroit: “At first glance, Detroit looks more like Pompeii”; “Once you get out of the stadium/casino sector, downtown is a grisly, apocalyptic sight”; “A much heralded emblem of industrial decline”; “Eminem’s slick Super Bowl commercial showcased the inner strength of the Motor City.” The idealism is as ridiculous as the fetishizing of Detroit’s troubles (“decline” is a popular word that’s been tossed around for the past six decades or so). Flashy commercials aside, Mayor Dave Bing, touted as a possible savior after the disgrace of Kwame Kilpatrick—who, to make a very long story short, was forced to leave office in 2008 after committing perjury—still says the city will be broke by April if its finances are not given a major overhaul.

Between 1820 and 1910, the city of Detroit—the “138 square miles” in the title of Julia Reyes Taubman’s admirable new book of photographs—grew from a shipping outpost with a population of 1,400 to a city of nearly half a million. This was in no small part thanks to Henry Ford and his “motor car for the great multitude.” The Model T went into production in 1908. By 1950, Detroit was known around the world as the Motor City and had a population of almost two million. This was not long after the first major race-related riot during World War II, when the city grew by about 350,000 inhabitants in less than three years, and before the second big riot, the one during which Michigan governor George Romney flew over 12th Street in a helicopter and told a reporter, “It looks like the city has been bombed.”

If Detroit is all metaphor, it is a decidedly mixed one: it is whatever America needs it to be. It is either the case study for the fall of industry or an up-and-coming destination to start a business for cheap; a union town with a coke problem or the Paris of the Midwest redux, trying to clean up its act; a shrinking city with potential or a Wild West settlement where every gun and every bag of heroin have a sad story to tell. It is a postapocalypse in the middle of the present, some news outlet will say, which will then mention how hip it’s become. So what of the 700,000 people who still live there?

Of the extensive books of photographs published about Detroit in the past year that present—and exploit—the city as a preserved shell of its former self—Detroit Disassembled, The Ruins of Detroit, Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins (a kind of triumvirate of a style critics have labeled “ruin porn”)—Ms. Taubman’s Detroit: 138 Square Miles (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 480 pages, $65.00, Dec. 31, 2011) is the first to document the city and its flaws, but also to demonstrate that, for better or worse, there is life among those ruins.

A particularly thrilling image comes early on, of the abandoned Detroit Boat Club, founded in 1839, on Belle Isle. It is a gray and foggy day; the building has not fallen into complete disrepair. It looks like the inhabitants decided that morning, after a couple of hard years, to simply pick up and leave. Ms. Taubman, who moved to Detroit in 1999 and helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, works her camera like a skilled postmodernist works a pen: she is good at casting as familiar the foreign sight of a large, expansive building with a 150-year history that has lost its use value only to become a mere pile of wood and bricks.

It is refreshing to view an image of abandonment that feels more documentary than sensational, but it is Ms. Taubman’s photographs of people (so absent from too many chronicles of Detroit) that are the most interesting. Still, even if the presentation of it is, for the most part, tasteful, the book is weighted heavily toward rubble and decay. Interspersed among that, however, are casual observers who seem to have been picked up by the camera accidentally. There is one picture of three black men at a bar, running an entire spectrum of possible responses to a wealthy white woman aiming her lens at them. One has his back turned, the other is staring with an unimpressed scowl and the third is playing for attention, flashing a wad of cash in each hand and wrinkling his mouth over a cigarette. It is worth noting that most of the book’s images of people are shot in bars.

There are exceptions. One is of three people, their backs facing the camera, watching a neighbor’s house burn from their front lawn. When people see Detroit for the first time, they are often amazed that entire blocks seem to have gone missing from the landscape. The couple of days leading up to Halloween—a white knuckle time for the city, the fire department in particular, called Devil’s Night—were renamed Angel’s Night in 1994 in an attempt to get citizens out into the streets to help quell some of the flames. There were 169 fires over a three-day period surrounding Halloween in 2010, up from 119 in 2009. (Thankfully, this number reportedly went down in 2011.)

One can feel the weight of history in Ms. Taubman’s photograph, as well as the suggestion of bad things to come. Still, it is the people watching nervously that give the burning house its meaning. If anything, the book needs more images like this.

But, in all fairness, how could it? This modern city gained and lost two million people in less than 100 years, and that story is told better—or easier, anyway—by the abandoned buildings than it is by the people who stayed. Because, you see, Detroit defies the idea of a modern city. Cities are not meant to shrink, they are not meant to burn extensively.

There has been a lot written about ruin porn. Some defend it as realism, while others are indignant that it ignores what still functions in a city in favor of holding a magnifying glass to its troubles. These are, in their own ways, both fair enough arguments, but what often goes unmentioned is the kind of twisted entertainment we get from these images, regardless of whether we find them inevitable or grotesque. This is the result of layers and layers of irony blanketing the very concept of ruin porn. There is the irony of Detroit itself, America’s first great industrial city essentially rising to an apogee and then falling shortly after, a kind of frowning parabola that no American city has gone through so perfectly. There is the irony of how—in the face of the decline we desire to see catalogued in coffee-table books—out of spite or pity or sheer willpower, morning still comes to 700,000 Detroiters every day.

Consider Ms. Taubman’s aerial view of the Rouge River Ford plant, Albert Kahn’s great behemoth of industrial architecture that, at its peak in the 1930s, employed 100,000 workers; it fell along with the auto industry, but it still churns out a new car every few seconds. There is the irony that the Rouge River plant’s peak happened decades before the city’s own, a discrepancy that should have been a clue about the American dream of which the cars rolling out of the factory were a major component: that the dream was a lie. Céline summed this up best in Journey to the End of the Night, in a scene where his protagonist escapes a jungle in Africa, hops on a boat to America and arrives in Detroit, “where … it was easy to get hired and there were lots of little jobs that were well paid and didn’t take too much out of you.”

Then there is the sadder irony that much of the rhetoric in the national media focused on Detroit’s current comeback involves the migration of young white people into old neighborhoods downtown. (Consider these two headlines from The New York Times this year, spaced three months apart: “Detroit Population Down 25 Percent, Census Finds” and “The Young and Entrepreneurial Move to Downtown Detroit, Pushing Its Economic Recovery.” Which is your narrative of choice?)

The greatest irony, however, is that we are drawn to these images at all. It is not called “pornographic” for nothing. There is no pride in looking, no fulfillment, only an impersonal pleasure rooted in nothing but the image itself. We look at Michigan Central Station, which has been compared to the Roman Colosseum and has added an obligatory gravity to a number of reductive U.S. news articles about the trouble with Detroit (this is a separate irony: how the photographer of ruin porn, like any good pornographer, always seems so impressed with his subjects). Michigan Central has a six-page spread in Ms. Taubman’s book. Skilled as she is, Ms. Taubman cannot do anything but allow her camera to turn the building into a vague symbol. Even from a great distance, it is evident that most of the windows have been blown out. Its brick is a mottled, sad gray-brown. The expanse of city surrounding it is flat and wide. Ms. Taubman takes her camera inside, revealing cracked brick and a collage of graffiti tags. We look and all attempts at progress, and all the history leading up to why the building is in such a state, are sucked into the rubble. We are able to conclude: “This is America’s Rome! What happened?” We do not really care when we can’t come up with an answer.

The truth is, I could write and write and still not find one. All I can tell you is memories and statistics: that in 1988, an intruder tied my grandparents to the radiator in their home on Detroit’s east side, then beat and robbed them of the few valuables they had; that the same house, the house my mother grew up in, no longer exists as of two years ago, a victim of the fire that nearly engulfed the rest of the entire block; that a bad batch of heroin that a chemist in Lerma, Mexico, mixed with the synthetic painkiller fentanyl killed dozens of drug users over the span of a few months in 2006, including a friend from high school with whom I had once bonded in mutual appreciation of a band whose name I’d rather not mention; that my parents went into foreclosure on their house in the Detroit suburbs; that I am ashamed that none of this seemed to matter until I left the city for good; that I am angry but don’t know where to direct it. I can tell you all this, but what would be the point?

I’ll quote, instead, the city’s motto, which has remained the same since the early 1800s. It comes from Gabriel Richard, a French Roman Catholic priest who built a school in Detroit in 1804, a year before the city was nearly leveled by a fire, burning for the first time. The motto is Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. It means: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”

mmiller@observer.com

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Comments

  1. “Ruin porn”? I think these photos are so much more than that.

    While the images many are not pretty, they force us to look at the stark reality of a city that once significant has become a decayed carcass of its former self. While many of the buildings that have been photographed would require significant investment to restore them to any semblance of their former selves, wouldn’t this be a better alternative in many instances to leveling them and looking upon abandoned empty lots on which they once stood, tall, strong and proud. Is urban farming really an alternative for Detroit? If we reduce the city of Detroit to farmland, how long will it be before the cancer that has affected this once great city extend to areas such as Palmer Park, Royal Oak, Grosse Pointe, etc. (branching out from Detroit) and points surrounding Pontiac and Flint (both of which have also been affected by this decay) to consume the entire east and north east side of the state, and eventually the entire state?

    With the intimate familiarity of which these buildings have been photographed, do you not offer the same service as a building inspector? Building inspectors, whether residential or commercial highlight for a prospective owner the faults in a building and show what needs to be done to bring a building up to code. Some people have taken the initiative. Some of these buildings, such as the Grand Central Station, the GAR, the Yellow Pages Building, some of the hotels, others, are being restored. Maybe someone woke up and asked “What have we done? What have we lost? Where are we going?” Maybe what these photographs will strike a nerve.

    People are never so offended as when confronted with the truth. These photos capture this truth and holds each subject up to the light for examination. These are so much more than “porn”. These photos are of much more than ruin. They are photos of a city asking to be reborn.

    1. keo says:

      I think the problem with “ruin porn” is that many times it doesn’t depict the truth. There are 900,000 people living in Detroit, and ruin porn often depicts the city as empty and dying, or worse – long dead. But, the city is also huge and so it comes off as empty. So how do you show a city that is mixed? Full of people, but empty? Dying, but also very much alive? Without some balance, the truth is definitely not being told.

    2. Skywlf77 says:

      I have to admit that I have spent hours…no, days…staring at photographs of the Packard Plant, Fisher Body 21 & 23, and countless hundreds of other abandonments. However, I don’t stare at them in awe of what they have become. I stare at them with an eye toward what they could be – what they SHOULD be. The Packard Plant, once the asbestos and lead paint was removed, could easily be rebuilt into a massive mixed-use facility that I’ve actually pictured in my head and finally committed to paper. It’s 3.5 Million square feet of possibilities (although that number would shrink a bit as some sections are not salvageable).

      I cringe every single time I see an update on a website stating that yet another building has been demolished, like the recent demolition this year of the old Cass Technical School. What an incredible waste! Even though it had structural issues, the demolition was carried out without a care in the world for what could be saved, what could be used, what could be repurposed or recycled. Even those buildings that are beyond saving can still be used. Their pipes, wires, bricks, wood floors, and other components could be reclaimed or recycled saving untold amounts of Earth’s natural resources and Detroit citizens could be hired to do the job bringing much-needed work and support to the local economy.

      Instead, these buildings are left to rot or torn down by massive machines that could care less about the history they are destroying. My only hope as I continue to gaze at these pictures and picture what those buildings could be is that someone with the investment capital available to them will, at some point, become interested enough in saving America and its history that they will turn an eye to Detroit and realize that to turn it around – and cities like it such as Gary, Indiana – would be to begin to turn America around.

      I may live in a small town in Southern Illinois, but even I know that we, as a country and a society, need this. We need the revitalization of our cities, our industries, and our economy. We NEED it.

  2. [...] Michael H. Miller- GalleristNY.com [...]

  3. Guest says:

    Must be nice, like Ms. Taubman, to be married to a suburban Detroit billionaire whose empire was built on his father’s destruction of vital urban cores (through the development of high-end shopping malls), to get a police escort for many of her photo safaris in the dirty, black city, and to suddenly get taken seriously as a photographer because she started an art museum. this is the worst kind of poverty porn: perpetrated by a billionairess voyeur and consumed by an audience completely disconnected from the reality of life in the city she seeks to portray. I read that she had a party for her book at The Whitney, figuring it was the high-end restaurant by that name here in Detroit in an old logging magnate’s mansion. Then I realized it was at THE Whitney. We shouldn’t blame Ms. Taubman for making by-now-cliched pictures of a crumbling, photogenic city. We should blame ourselves for paying attention to her.

  4. jemima surblend says:

    I think Detroit 138: Square Miles does a fair job of representing both the beauty and decay of Detroit. Let’s be honest there is a lot of both in the city limits. The blog on the book’s website shows a fair amount of pictures and the balance of the work of Julie Taubman http://detroit138squaremiles.com/julia-taubman-captivated-detroit

  5. [...] A couple of days ago, a new photography book about the ruins of Detroit got released, although this time each picture is commented by ‘city experts’ in Julia Reyes Taubman’s “Detroit: 138 Square Miles.” Meanwhile, two other new publications are paying tribute to the richness of Detroit’s history by bringing more “flesh” to the city. Amy Elliot Bragg’s “Hidden History of Detroit” as well as John Carlisle’s explorations in “313: Life in the Motor City,” strangely complete each other. The latest issue of British Boat Magazine (proudly self-labeled “an antidote to lazy journalism”) is entirely dedicated to Detroit. Its opening article is signed by Detroiter Jeffrey Eugenides, who repents his previous aesthetic posture in a genuine article untitled “Against Ruin Porn…” Seems we’re not yet seeing the end of the debate… In case you didn’t have enough reading, check this recent Gallerist NY article that made some buzz in the Detroit websphere: “Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?” [...]

  6. Ted Williams says:

    Ruin porn has become a trite cliche. It is a crutch of untalented and uninteresting photographers who think that by somehow taking a photo of a pile of junk, they are conveying some deep and profound message. How many photos of the Michigan Central Train Depot do we really need?

    1. Jason Shepard says:

      Somehow I get the feeling that you are actually an “untalented and uninteresting photographer.” Your lack of ability to see things from perspectives other than your own leave you sorely lacking in appreciation for anything that you yourself do not create.

      Yes, Michigan Central is overly photographed, but there are millions of other blighted properties out there that could have a future if the right person sees the right photograph and realizes the capabilities and possibilities that structure contains and decides to make the investment to make it happen.

      Do the photographs really convey a deep and profound meaning? Yes and no. They do in that they represent both the heyday of the city they are located in while also representing, at the same time, the derelict status of that same area. They scream “help me” while trying to hide their face in shame.

      The photographing of these structures is just as necessary as the photography of “living” architecture. Taken in perspective, “ruin porn” can actually be the medium for change and progress. How’s that for “uninteresting”?

  7. [...] Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can …Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take? By Michael H. Miller 11/29/11 5:35pm. Tweet. View of Detroit’s East Side. Photo by … [...]

  8. [...] the entire article: Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs, But How Much Ruin Porn Can we Take? Tags: Gallerist NY, Michael H Miller, Ruin Porn Previous post'9 BUSINESSES' HITS THE NAIL ON THE [...]

  9. [...] Detroit is balking, coining the term, “ruin porn.”  Michael H. Miller sums it up in his article published last November titled, “Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much More Ruin Porn Can We [...]

  10. [...] been awesome so far..and I’m glad to be discovering things about Detroit other than “ruin porn” and the big [...]

  11. [...] much beloved Detroit ruin porn comes to mind. Perhaps we should come up with a name for this new genre of film. Subway smut? [...]