It’s the Loss that Pulls (the Narrative Aesthetic of Ruin)

Few things are as aesthetically pleasing to me as a broken building. I recently took a road trip to Wilmington, NC, and decided to drive the long route home, through several fading towns along route 117. I nearly drove into a ditch (repeatedly) for turning my head around as I passed one decaying barn and bungalow after another.

While I am aware of rural poverty, I’ve always associated images of urban decadence with poverty more so than scenes of rural ruin. There is something gaudy and proud about urban decay—the sprawling metallic glare, the rainbow of patinas, and the sequined rust all present themselves theatrically, performing the story of a city’s decline. Urban poverty is aesthetically confrontational. There is something much humbler about a singular barn in the middle of a pasture, its bald ceiling half-caved, its slumped frame standing on one wall—just as proud, but quietly so.

In any case, it’s all ‘ruin porn,’ the merits and pitfalls of which have been debated, especially in the context of photography from cities like Detroit. Is it exploitative? Aesthetically speaking, sure—but I prefer to not mix ethics into my aesthetics. (And if you enjoy ruin porn as much as I do, I highly recommend the Detroit photos on this site, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.)

It does seem, however, that the narrative appeal of tragedy is at the heart of this particular aesthetic—the aesthetic of ruin, that is. This kind of imagery implies loss—a fall from greatness that is more engaging (for me, and some others, at least) than sustained greatness. An instructor once explained to me that Vermeer’s paintings are captivating because they imply a narrative—something has just happened, or is about to happen within the world of the painting. So what easier way for a photographer to imply a narrative than by capturing the squalor inside the remnants of a once thriving theater or factory? Maybe it’s too easy. We all know the story by now. (With this thought, I question some of my own creative choices, of course.)

I could call it ‘history’—the force that pulls my neck around as I drive, in order to make out the cracks between the wooden planks of the porch, the missing door hinge, the black silhouette of furniture through a muddy window—but if I’m being honest, I’ll admit that a refurbished historic theater just as clean and sturdy as it was in 1885 is not nearly as interesting. It’s the loss that pulls.

It’s voyeurism—the chance to peep into someone else’s microcosm of grief, displayed by and seemingly contained within a physical structure. While I was driving on 117, a replica of one such tiny microcosm sat next to me in the passenger seat. My friend Chris, whom I had been visiting in Wilmington, had secretly made a three-dimensional representation of the fictional town featured in my thesis collection, which attempts to deal with the idea of microcosmic grief in rust belt cities. In an amazing act of spontaneous collaboration, Chris had made me a rusted city.

Chris Guppy’s rusted city

So as I passed all of those rural towns, their bubbles of decay flying by my own steel bubble of a vehicle, rattling in a cardboard box beside me were these little microcosms of plaster and paint, born of my friend’s own internal world, itself born of a reading of my own internal world, born of a childhood spent in the bubble of a rust belt town.

Peeping into the microcosm

 Thanks to Chris Guppy for making this post visually engaging with her rusted city. 

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