Slumpy, Michigan Central Station and Reflections on Ruin Porn

March 25, 2011

still standin

still standin, photo by paulhitz.

The other day I noticed a big spike on one of the most popular posts of all time on Michigan in Pictures, slumpy … the William Livingstone Mansion in Detroit’s Brush Park which tells the story of the fall of this iconic ruin in 2007.

The culprit for this increased traffic was Haunting Images Of Detroit’s Decline by Nicole Hardesty on Huffington Post, a photographic tour of Detroit’s ruins produced in response news that:

…census data indicates Detroit’s population dropped by a startling 25 percent in the last decade, from 951,270 in 2000 to 713,777 last year. That’s a 60 percent decline from its 1950 peak population — 1.85 million — and the lowest count since the 1910 Census put the then-promising Motor City’s population at 285,704.

Definitely shocking numbers, and like many media outlets, they chose to drive the numbers home with pictures of some of the many ruins of the Motor City: United Artists Theater, Michigan Central Station (MCS), the Whitney Building and (of course) Slumpy. The images are drawn from the new photographic book Ruins of Detroit from Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. The photographs are no doubt gorgeous and there’s no denying that ruin photography provides some powerful commentary on what has happened to Detroit in the last 40 years.

In looking at them, however, I was struck by the thought that seems to always come to mind when I research and write about Slumpy, Michigan Central Station and even the ruin in redevelopment where my office is, the former Traverse City State Hospital. That thought is “Am I adding something positive to the discussion and struggle to redefine Michigan or am I just exploiting the pain behind these ruins?”

There’s two really excellent essays that look at roughly two sides of the ruin porn/ruin photography coin. The first is Detroitism by John Patrick Leary in Guernica Magazine. It’s a probing and critical look at ruin porn that is well worth your consideration that asks “What does ‘ruin porn’ tell us about the Motor City, ourselves, other American cities?” The second is a thoughtful response to Leary’s article On ‘Ruin Porn’ by photographer and historian Ian Ference. Ference takes issue with the assertation that ruin photography cannot help but exploit a city’s misery and takes you through the work of some earlier ruin photographers.

I still don’t know where I come down in this whole debate, but I think that I prefer the work along the lines of Johnny Knoxville to the reporting that he mocks in the opening of his great video about the D. How about you? Add a comment below.

Check this out bigger and in Paul’s My Detroit slideshow.

6 Responses to “Slumpy, Michigan Central Station and Reflections on Ruin Porn”

  1. Terese Says:

    I really enjoyed watching Johnny Knoxville’s documentary on Detroit. It was a great piece!

  2. Scott Says:

    Excellent piece, Andy. I suspect exploitation is a concern. On the other hand I think many of us are simply trying to make sesne of a painful and complicated situation. I must confess I hate it when these photographs are use by some cable news twit looking for visual weapon to make some simple- minded point.

  3. farlane Says:

    I’m glad Terese. I really like his attitude and would watch “Welcome to the Real World with Johnny Knoxville” religiously if it were on. ;)

    Thanks Scott. There’s some interesting reading there.

    One thing that really frustrates me is that I feel the media uses the easy “Let’s gawp over the corpse” angle way too often when they consider the incredible challenges the city of Detroit is facing.

    I get the sense that if today’s media were around at the end of the dinosaur age they would completely ignore the rise of the mammals.

  4. Erin Says:

    I believe publishing (traditionally or on the web) ruin porn must be detrimental. Who would ever want to move to Detroit after seeing those photos that, while haunting, make it look like a Soviet Bloc country? There are THOUSANDS of beautiful homes in Detroit that are still beautiful. Downtown Detroit is one of the most attractive big cities in the Midwest. It’s so stylish. If all people see are the ruins, how is that helpful? I want to see a photo essay that highlights the parts of the metropolis that are still beautiful.

  5. Doug Says:

    As someone raised in Detroit these photos are very sad. How can someone consider reasons for this downfall without sounding racist? BUT there is somewhat of a rebirth of downtown Detroit: lower Woodward Ave, Lafayette Park, etc. Sure wish someone would do a set of pics of the positives!

  6. Ken Says:

    When I do pictures of Detroit, I try to do the positives.


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