I lived for five years in Pittsburgh, the city that used to be the steel capital of the US. If you go to Pittsburgh you wouldn’t necessarily notice the city’s past, since most of the steel mills are gone. They are not just abandoned shells, they are literally gone. In their old places you can see a few signs of their former presence - such as the few neatly cleaned items used to decorate “The Waterfront” shopping area. A little down the river from The Waterfront, there is a single steel mill still operating, but it’s not the kind of spectacle you’d expect from Ye Olde Tales where Pittsburgh was described as “hell with the lid off” (in contrast Pittsburgh, city politics still is hell with the lid on).
There are two types of stories about Pittsburgh, the one that includes the steel mills and decline and the one about a city reinventing itself as, for example, a medical center. The truth, of course, is that Pittsburgh’s story is incomplete if you just look at one side.
Needless to say, the decline folks don’t have to use Pittsburgh for their tales. They also need not look at places like Holyoke, MA, where the industry left such a long time ago that most people wouldn’t connect it with modernity (or our lives) any longer. There still is Detroit, a perfect place for what people have termed ruin porn. Ruin-porn photography is great for narratives about the supposed decline of either America’s industries or America or America’s empire (whatever that might actually mean).
The giddiness of some of those narratives always makes me think of Nero playing the lyre while watching Rome burn. Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m sure their proponents will now erupt. But I just can’t escape the feeling that the utter indifference to places like Detroit displayed by those on the right is mirrored by those on the left who proclaim to be interested in the city, while in reality they’re only interested in their narratives. And, thank you, any city will do to write the same old tired and tiring stories about the Empire and its decline.
So Detroit then. I do think that there actually is a story there to be told - probably more than one, and I have the feeling that the city being abused/misused for simple decline narratives is making people think that, well, what else is there to say? Any city that has seen its former industry disappear, to be replaced by nothing else, has a story to tell; and it’s a story that needs to be heard.
I also have the feeling that a story about such cities, while touching upon the ruins, does not center on those; despite their arresting visual appeal, the ruins have very little to say. Phrased in another way, it will be ruin porn if there is no connection made with either the living city or with the people who might have lived there and left.
In fact, the longer I’m thinking about this, the more stories I can think of to tell. After all, Detroit’s decline, in slightly different form, is known from the inner parts of many other American cities. It is tied to the ghost towns in the American West. It’s part of a tale of how cities cannot thrive or survive if they are treated merely as places to live or work, with their inhabitants having no other actual involvement, no idea of the city as a social body.
If you don’t believe me, look across the Atlantic, where the cities that comprise the Ruhr region (which you could think of as one megacity) have become Europe’s Capital of Culture this year. In Oberhausen, for example, they had half a million people visit the gasometer, an exhibition hall inside one of those industrial structures straight (probably literally - I haven’t checked) out of a Becher book. A lot of the old industry in the Ruhr area has vanished, the rest was transformed into museums and cutting-edge art galleries, because people realized that some of what they had they needed to keep, for their city, with all its history, to live on.
Contrast this with Pittsburgh, where the steel mills are all gone, and where they’re still washing off the buildings to remove the soot. The good people of Pittsburgh are literally removing the patina of their city! There is a reason why when you watch Antique’s Road Show (I know, I know…) the appraisers always tell people not to remove the patina. It applies to antiques just as much as to cities: An antique piece that doesn’t show its past is not worth much because its history has been removed. What is a city that literally eradicates the memories of its past (or transforms them into ornaments for its strip malls)? Why get rid off a unique history?
In any case, here we have Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled, which offers a slightly broader view of the city than I had anticipated. The emphasis is on “slightly”. I’m probably going to disappoint a lot of people who have their opinions already formed, but I don’t think that Detroit Disassembled qualifies as ruin porn. After all, there are people living in Detroit, and Moore shows some of them where they live. There even are a few shots that show the Detroit that is still alive, which happen to sneak in as parts of the background.
But I’ll admit that I’m torn about the book, because while it shows a photographer trying to extend his work beyond the obvious ruin porn, I’m not so sure how far he actually got. It might be not very far for some people, and far enough for others. I think I will eventually end up in the former camp. The book feels a bit unfinished for me, and I’m using the word “feels” because even though I’ve thought about it for a while I can’t pin down what it is. Regardless, it’s a good book, which hopefully will spawn some interest in the city from people who might not be aware of the extent of its misery.
There also is Steidl’s Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre: The Ruins of Detroit, which I haven’t seen, so I can’t and won’t say anything about it. In his acknowledgements, Moore write
“I am also most thankful to Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, two gifted young photographers from Paris who originally opened my eyes to the unlimited possibilities of Detroit. I wish them all the best with their continuing work and upcoming book on the ruins of that city.”
A few technical comments. I tend not to be a stickler…. OK, I do tend to be a stickler, I admit it. As I noticed in my review of Moore recent show, some of the images seem digitally overprocessed (overharpened and/or having overly garish colours). I’m saying this knowing, owning and loving Moore’s Russia: Beyond Utopia. I could speculate why the images in the Detroit book don’t look as good as the Russia ones, but of course, that might not be too productive. Also, my copy of Detroit Disassembled is already coming apart at the binding, which I find a bit disappointing.
Detroit Disassembled, photography by Andrew Moore, essay by Philip Levine, 136 pages, Damiani/Akron Art Museum, 2010