Somewhere in the hyperactive panopticon that is my Twitter stream, I appear to have happened upon a clump of “ruin porn” links. I think they cluster around an Atlantic article on the psychology of ruin porn, which seems to have inspired a number of bloggers to write things they’d been chewing over for some time, or at least bring up relevant posts they’d seen of late.
The Atlantic piece starts out as an interesting taster article: an introduction to a topic that readers may not have spent much time thinking about before clicking to it. Then, for some reason, it wanders into the disagreements between standoffish ruin photographers and more-involved urban explorers. It’s a turn that makes me wonder if the author thought that expository writing, like short stories, needed conflict to be complete.
But I digress. For those of us who are already ruin-bibbers, randy for antique, the interesting word is the term “porn”. As this article (which references the one from the Atlantic) points out, ruin porn is the depiction for an uninvolved audience of the photographer’s physical experience of ruined places and consequent perceptions of the past those ruins represent.*
Through the experience of the space, explorers and photographers (and blends of the two) break out of a conventional experience of the present and into a space where the artifacts of history feel at once fresh and new, and ancient and decayed. Imagination is key to the atemporal experience of these places: One can exist in an abandoned, ruined space and see shards of a dead past on which one can construct a live imagining - who were the people who lived and worked here? What were their lives like? What were their stories? What happened to them? What happened to them in these spaces?
This is as good an explanation of the lure of ruin porn as I’ve found. It’s like a story prompt, the visual equivalent of a Mad Lib gone melancholic, and the topic is our own lives.
Ruins serve as a kind of spatial memento mori for people embedded in a culture marked by production and consumption (and prosumption) of the new and by the invisibility of the discarded: They are gentle reminders of our own transience. They lead us to questions just as the imagining of the past did: What will our contemporary structures look like in fifty years? In a hundred? Who will remember us? Who will stand in our abandoned spaces and wonder about us?
The risk, of course, is that what we are led to imagine may not be real. When we see grim bare walls, do we really know that they weren’t covered in cheerful posters? We could easily look at the remains of The Chrysalids and mistake them for The Lord of the Rings. Watching dramatizations of historical events, even knowing that they’re inaccurate, we get the the gut-deep feeling that we understand things better for having seen them. How much, in the same spirit, does ruin porn encourage us to see the past as something faded, shabby, and threadbare?
I love ruin porn, personally, but I try not to mistake it for genuinely knowing history.
* It’s worth pointing out that the article is the first in a not-yet-completed series. I’ve no idea whether the author will duplicate or diverge from my musings here. I suspect that my observations and hers are more like two trains that run briefly in parallel than that what I’m talking about is of much use or challenge to her theses.