From Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw:
why the present is a crutch of
bottles drowning a derelict past
confusions that ride the future on
and plywood boxes with cast iron wheels
impersonal and impervious to everything
hot and cold
knowing a special ignorance
wealth can buy and arrogance sustain
petrified abstractions and ambivalent
to human equations that temporize and
while money makes money iron
plaster crumbles and chromium
(Note: once again, sorry for the poor reproduction quality. I still don’t have a suitable book-photographing workflow worked out.)
Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was composed in the 60’s, but not published until 2001. It consists of photographs and verse on a jazz theme. DeCarava writes, “Everything a jazzman feels, sees, hears, everything he was and is becomes the source and object of his music. It is a music purchased with dues of hardship, suffering and pain, optimism and love.” His book has this aspect about it. It is an inclusive, intimate, and comprehensive exploration of life lived in the context of the time and place and society in which it was made.
It is a kind of phenomenological document on race and class in America. By “phenomenological document,” I mean it is a record of an experience. There must be a better way to put this, but so far I cannot think of one. The value of the photographs in The Sound I Saw is not in objective disclosure of facts, but it is also not in internal exploration, or in the artistic arrangement of documentary “style” photographs to serve an interior vision. These are photographs that, more than any others I can think of, approximate a shared experience of the human gaze.
The eye is not an isolated organ, and it is not a technical instrument. My eye gives me a view that is informed by my knowledge, my experience, my personality, my feelings. The typical Western mindset is to perceive this subjective aspect of experience, which is inextricable even at the base level of sensorium, as a weakness, or at least a potential vulnerability. This assumption is always problematic, but it is an absolute land mine when it comes to understanding issues like race and class, or any other area where society is split up along divisions of power which are also divisions of perceptibility.
So, for those who do not have their own direct experience of the kinds of scene DeCarava is photographing, it is important to approach these photographs in the correct way: not just as historical documents (although many of them are), and not just as artistic works (although all of them are), but also for their truth-disclosing function as regards the subjective experience of race and class, which is not to be confused with opinion or other epistemologically defused modes of communication. There is testimony here, and the reader should be reading for it.
So, that being said, what’s the book actually like? It consists of black and white photographs interspersed with verse. The verse is a single continuous poem (and possibly a continuous sentence) about 2,000 words in length, and it appears to the viewer in chunks and fragments. No fragment stands on its own. Each extends from the last and points to the next, while also relating to the photographs it frames, and so binding the whole book together.
Similarly, the photographs are tied one to the next by composition or content — the angles of a fire escape to the angles of a quartet’s instruments, one pair of clasped hands to another, gazes intersecting across the book’s gutter, gestures, reflections, patterns of light and dark. The images and the text keep time with each other, and together flow through the stage, the street, the hallway, the home, and spiral back and on again.
DeCarava’s arsenal of technique is diverse — style, angle of view, perspective, content — all are flexible and changeable. Soft focus and motion blur are used alongside crisp, perfect detail, each advancing a different visual strategy, each serving the same overall narrative. Strongly stylized and allusive images and utterly straight documentary views support each other seamlessly. The result is organic, contiguous, encompassing work and play, family life and the public space, high and low art, and above all, music and the landscape of race and class.
The Sound I Saw is the best example I have encountered of a photographic sequence. Most sequences fail at either establishing solid photo-to-photo connections, or at producing a satisfying unified work in the sequence as a whole. And text, when provided, usually either serves to cover some gap in the photos’ ability to depict and explain, or else establishes a tenuous bridge between the photographs and some theoretical justification for the sequence — which is more often than not absurd, patronizing, or pandering. The Sound I Saw avoids all these traps.
Part of the reason it is able to do so is that, as I mentioned, it presents to the viewer a record of experience. When looking at the photos that show work, and reading the text that describes work, one feels work — its cost in fatigue, the weight of its necessity, its exertion, its sweat. This experience of work is contiguous across manual labor and the work of musicians performing on stage. DeCarava pays the same kind and degree of attention to the laborer’s tool and the musician’s instrument. And sweat — in The Sound I Saw, sweat takes on a spiritual or religious dimension, almost like a communion:
to rest and drop the two shovels
must use back to back
and in his place of something
good enough to breathe bittersweet
and the drag gigs that never end
(DeCarava’s depictions of play are equally profound, but I think less singular. Many photographers have done an excellent job of recording children at play, adults caught up in dance, etc. It is less common to see work presented in a way that cuts past our tendency to objectify and to distance ourselves from our experiences of strain and pain.)
Corollary to work is an awareness of the class and racial context in which work takes place, which DeCarava conveys in images of subtle severity. The hand of a man glimpsed in the backseat of a car is minimal, indeed not far from the very edge of recognizability, but elegant and eloquent in the reality it expresses, of the distance between the rich and the rest of us. Equally eloquent are the pale faces of well-dressed men who avoid the camera’s gaze — and the photographer’s gaze, and all that implies.
These things are part of what builds the experience of race into the photographs themselves, and invites the viewer to share in the seeing and the being seen of being a black man in the 60’s. Which is very different from just providing a record of a race-related event or personage, but is no less a true document.
DeCarava’s depictions of the places in which people live and work are just as elegantly and profoundly made. It is difficult to strike a balance between clearly and directly portraying the ruinous situations in which poor people often live and respecting the reality and specificity and dignity of the lives they live. DeCarava does this better than pretty much anyone else. (cf. The Ruinpornomicon)
He also finds the balance between an honest record of the alienation, loathing, and oppression that come with a racist society, and the desire for a more equitable future (“…the hope / light hands in trains will be / hands / dark faces on buses just / faces…”) and also images of people in the present who come together across the color line. In accounting for race — especially race in the 60’s, although unfortunately it is not so different today — it is very easy to wind up with a partial narrative — one defined by anger and bitterness, or by hope. It is harder to simultaneously affirm the reality of both, which is what DeCarava does.
The Sound I Saw is a beautiful and moving and important book. It is a book that I think everyone in America should be expected to read. Certainly it is a book that should be much more prominent than it is within the discourse of documentary and street photography. I find it especially bothersome that we give so much attention to The Americans (a book that is, by comparison, a travelogue: a skimming of the surface of American life) when we could be talking about this instead.
It may not be in print (grr), but you may be able to find it on the remainder table of your local bookstore (grr), and you can certainly find it used online. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do so.
In this post, I’m going to talk about the failings of photographs that I would call “ruin porn”, and photographs of different subjects or from different genres that may shed some light on how these subjects could be better approached.
For ruin porn, I’m going to use Marchand, Meffre, and Andrew Moore. Marchand and Meffre’s Ruins of Detroit is one of the more high-profile examples of “ruin porn,” and is characteristic of the genre. Moore’s work in Detroit is another typical example of ruin porn, and is the one that touched off the post on The Online Photographer which we discussed in part one.
“East Methodist Church,” by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. From The Ruins of Detroit
Marchand and Meffre. Marchand and Meffre seem to have a predilection for easy targets. Their subjects are often standard subjects — or subjects which have become standard, at any rate, like monuments and other tourist attractions. As with a tourist’s photographs of landmarks, they often have an obligatory quality about them, and at times (as with the photograph above) a sense of smugness.
Their approaches to these subjects also have a standard feel to them. Seeing their photographs made inside office buildings, for example, I immediately thought that if I were looking at a facility rental brochure, I would probably be seeing much the same view. And, as with a brochure, their images do not seem intended to substantively inform the viewer so much as to set a tone or message, prefatory to a pitch.
Looking at these photographs, I do not feel that I am seeing a city — either a live city or a dead one “in a state of mummification.” It is more like seeing Frankenstein’s monster manifested in the idiom of architectural photography: patchwork necrotic pieces conjured into a shambling metaphor.
While Marchand and Meffre celebrate the historic significance of their work, the image they present of Detroit seems curiously ahistorical. It does not give the sense of documenting an ongoing process, and there is no sense of causes or effects in it. And unlike a record of the ruins of an ancient civilization, it does not serve as a starting point for reconstructing something which is lost.
This work belongs less with photographic efforts to document the situation of a place in history than with photographic efforts to assail certain aspects of the mythology of America — in other words, more Robert Frank than Atget, if one were to construct a European-photographer-based scale of historical vs. ideological content.
But while I think Frank gets more credit than he deserves for his exploration of race and class, there’s no denying that he was profoundly interested in the lives of real people, and their situation within (or underneath) America’s mythology and ideology, and that this concern shows in his photography.
This does not seem to be true of Marchand and Meffre. Their photographs seem peculiarly devoid of a sense of human tragedy. And consider this statement of Meffre’s:
“We are not used to seeing empty buildings left intact. In Europe, salvage companies move in immediately and take what they can sell as antiques. Here, they only take the metal piping to sell for scrap. In the Vanity ballroom alone, we saw four giant art deco chandeliers, beautiful objects, each one unique. It was almost unbelievable that they could still be there. It is as if America has no sense of its own architectural history and culture.”
When I read that, I immediately thought of the stark contrast between this attitude and Frank’s approach. Then I thought: “first time as tragedy, second time as farce.”
In all the troubled history of the city of Detroit, are we to take the measure of its place in American culture by the the treatment of its chandeliers?
“Birches Growing in Books, Detroit,” by Andrew Moore.
Andrew Moore. Moore’s approach feels different from Marchand and Meffre’s. The image of Detroit which he assembles is more diverse, and provides more context. It also feels less architectural in nature, and more like a combination of urban landscape and the sort of documentary interior work that Walker Evans did. As a result, it gives a much stronger sense of place.
However, it has a warmth and gloss to it that seems rather odd, given the content. It creates a feeling that is less like documentary photography and more like travel photography — or like watching a television commercial to promote ruin tourism. (Is that a thing? If it isn’t yet, I presume it will be soon.)
“Roofparty, Detroit”, by Andrew Moore.
Moore’s photographs have a tendency to romanticize ruin. They are genuinely attractive, and often intriguing, even alluring — which, I suppose, is why they feel like travel/promotional photography to me. It also gives them a certain resemblance to catalog photography — the attention to colors, the way the views open into spaces. It is not so different from what one finds in an Ikea or a Pottery Barn catalog.
This romantic aspect kills the value of many of Moore’s photographs for me, but not all. Some of them appeal greatly to me, especially those in which plants play a prominent role, and those in which the land itself seems to have a presence. But it is hard to know what to really make of these images, when taken together with the rest.
Of course, one can throw adjectives at bodies of work all day long without necessarily providing a fellow viewer with a sense of how a photograph that is described as failing is supposed to have been able to succeed. With that in mind, consider the following three photographs, and the men who made them:
“Aerial View: Looking Southeast Over Windy Ridge and Visitors Parking Lot, Four and One-Half Miles Northeast of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1983” by Frank Gohlke. In Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke, ed. John Rohrbach. p. 85.
“Graduation, New York, 1949,” by Roy DeCarava. In Roy DeCarava: Photographs, ed. James Alinder. p. 23.
Rue Saint-Jacques after the demolition of the buildings bordering the cloister of the church, from the corner of the rue de la Parcheminerie, February 1908, by Eugene Atget. In Unknown Paris, ed. David Harris. p. 129.
Each of these photographs embodies a quality which is absent or underrepresented in ruin porn. It should be noted that none of them, either separately or together, precisely addresses the kind of task undertaken by the photographers working in Detroit; I am not presenting these images as a recipe. They are just demonstrations of alternate ways of working which have some bearing on the problems we have been considering.
Gohlke: Causality. The first of the three is one of the photographs Frank Gohlke made to document the aftermath of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. There are many aspects to Gohlke’s disaster photographs that are praiseworthy, but what seem particularly relevant now is his fundamental concern for cause and effect: Gohlke’s commitment to not just documenting the enormity of the situation, but to making photographs that reveal and support his understanding of the natural and human processes that have been at work in re-shaping the landscape.
The landscape there is a densely layered web of causes and effects, some of natural and some of human origin. When I ask, “What happened here?” I receive many answers, depending on where I am and where I am looking (“A Volatile Core,” in Thoughts on Landscape)
Gohlke’s research, photographs, and writing about Mount St. Helens explore the events of and surrounding the eruption comprehensively, dealing not just with the general geological processes and the body and dollar counts, but going into the moment-to-moment details of the processes of the eruption, and the specific marks those processes left behind them on the landscape, and how to interpret those marks — “Each site narrates its own story, if you can read the particular language in which it is written.” (“Mount St. Helens: Photographer’s Notes,” in Thoughts on Landscape)
I once heard it described as a superheated brick wall moving at highway speed, at least in its effect on objects in its path. Those objects were overwhelmingly trees, and most of them were on slopes and in narrow valleys. Although the cloud might act like a solid when it hit something, it was also a fluid composed of particles of different sizes and weights. Just as the heaviest stones in a mountain stream drop to the bottom and are only moved along where the current is strongest, the ash cloud in the valley bottoms was denser and faster than it was farther up the sides. At the point where this picture was taken…the cloud was still hot enough to kill the trees and powerful enough to knock them down and strip the needles from their branches (but not all the branches from the trunk…) (“Mount St. Helens: Photographer’s Notes,” in Thoughts on Landscape) (Note: “this picture” here does not refer to the photograph shown above.)
Gohlke’s photographs reflect this kind of detailed understanding. In his photographs of felled trees — made from the air and from the ground, and from close, middle, and long distances, and encompassing various perspectives — one can “read” the passage of this fluid brick wall. And because of that, one can not only know intellectually but see with the eye that it is possible to make sense of this catastrophic event.
Gohlke’s work also extends beyond the event itself, to encompass the process of natural and human recovery (the formation and mitigation of a natural dam, the influx of living plants and creatures into the momentary ecological vacuum created by the eruption, etc.). The result is a coherent, comprehensive narrative — a story, “a framework in which events have logic and time a shape.” (“A Volatile Core,” in Thoughts on Landscape)
Of course, the nature of events in Detroit and similar places is very different. The causes are of an entirely different order, and their study belongs to entirely different — and mostly softer — sciences. But that does not diminish the need for images — and research and writing alongside images — which can record and reveal those processes, some of which are economic, some of which are social and political, some of which are in the domain of engineering.
Ruin porn shows us a decaying city and makes us feel the enormity of that decay. But it does not tell us how a building comes to be abandoned, or where the people who inhabited it have gone. It does not tell us what pressures compel these actions, or, in most cases, even tell us what it is like for a building to fall apart. As a result, it fails at creating that framework in which events have logic. It does not permit us to make sense of things.
To do that, what we require is a photography of ruin that is informed by a background in (or at least a thorough lay understanding of) economics and sociology. The ideal ruin photographer would be able to understand in concrete terms the economic and social forces at play in the city, and to make photographs that in some way reflect that understanding, and, if possible, support it with eloquent writing.
DeCarava: Humanity. The second photograph is by Roy DeCarava, one of my all-time favorite photographers. I included it because it — like many of DeCarava’s photographs — depicts a scene that would be entirely at home in a series of photographs of a “ruined” and “abandoned” city, except for the fact that it is obviously inhabited.
This particular photograph happens to depict a human being. Please don’t get hung up on this fact; I could as easily have chosen one of many photographs made in similar scenes in which no person appears, but which nonetheless show places where people live — for example, building interiors that are just as run-down and foreboding as the interiors of Marchand and Meffre, save for the presence of a hall light, etc.
DeCarava’s photographs move effortlessly from prosperity through poverty, across the whole socio-economic breadth of a city. And they do so without ever giving the sense that they are not part of a unitary record of a deep understanding of race and class in America. The presence of ruined buildings in the landscape DeCarava records do not indicate a city that is dying; they indicate a city in which people stubbornly persist at living, at working, at surviving.
I do not want to suggest that DeCarava’s work records a process of progress or of recovery, or heralds anything optimistic about the history of future of a place. But it does (sometimes) record undefeated people pursuing their lives in the midst of a desolation that is not the endpoint of an empire but one of its basic conditions of operation.
I think many people who get excited about ruin porn do so because they come from reasonably well-off backgrounds, and have perhaps never been to places that already look like “ruined” Detroit without being abandoned. And I think that many of them are drawn to images that depict the works of wealthy men worn down to the condition of slums — but without necessarily being aware of this. They perceive these scenes as fantastic, romantic-apocalyptic in nature, even though they are not really so different from the day-to-day living conditions many in this country have endured regularly throughout their lives.
This way of coming at these pictures is encouraged by the viewpoint evidenced in many of the photographs — a viewpoint which is peculiarly, even suspiciously, innocent of reflection upon matters of race and class.
We need photographs of places like Detroit which do demonstrate — or at least allude to — such an understanding. We need to see Detroit in terms of the people who have left it and the people who remain in it, who those people are, and what their relationship is to that place, and to each other. A place cannot be understood apart from its people.
Atget: History. The third photograph is by Eugene Atget. Typically, when Karl and I talk about Atget, our main concern is his absolute mastery of camera position and composition. But what makes him relevant to the present discussion is not his particular photographic superpowers, but the way he used them.
Atget would often photograph a particular subject — a building, an intersection, a neighborhood, etc. — from several different perspectives, and often repeatedly, over a period of years. This fastidious, inclusive approach to his city reflects his commitment to recording its history. He was not just looking for the perfect or the best view of a subject, and certainly not the most dramatic. He produced comprehensive series of views, preserving old Paris — and also recording its transformations.
With the knowledge that the buildings along the rue des Prêtres-Saint-Séverin, between the rue de la Parcheminerie and the church were to be demolished in order to widen and straighten the street, Atget devoted eleven photographs from his series Topographie du vieux Paris to recording its appearance in 1912. Since this urban change would destroy the intimate, picturesque character of this section of the street, Atget thoroughly, almost obsessively, documented it. He made four views at the intersection formed by the rue Boutebrie, the rue de la Parcheminerie, and the rue des Prêtres-Saint-Séverin, recording the perspective along each of these streets…In an effort to preserve the pedestrian’s experience of traversing the rue des Prêtres-Saint-Séverin, Atget constructed two sequences of linked views. One consists of five views which, beginning on the rue Boutebrie, pass through the intersection and continue along the rue des Prêtres-Saint-Séverin toward the church…while the second, a sequence of only three views, covers a portion of the same street but in the opposite direction, looking toward the rue Boutebrie…In each of these sequences, Atget included pairs of overlapping photographs: each pair surveyed the same stretch of the rue des Prêtres-Saint-Séverin, but from opposite sides of the road.
Atget also made a single view from the corner of the rue de la Parcheminerie looking north along the rue Saint-Jacques from a position very close to the one that he had selected in 1908…This last photograph documents the temporary shops that had sprung up in the intervening four years and would be swept away in 1913. (Harris, Unknown Paris, p. 132)
This sort of approach is not unusual for Atget, by any means. And his thoroughness extended through time as well as space:
Equally, he emphasized the historical significance of these negatives, depicting much that by 1920 had “completely disappeared: for example, the neighborhood of Saint-Séverin has completely changed. I have the entire neighborhood, over twenty years, until 1914, demolitions included.” (Harris, Unknown Paris, p. 14)
Ruin porn, despite trafficking in the feeling of historical significance, and despite sometimes overt historical pretensions, does not actually give us a view that is historic in nature. It presents us with fragments of a moment, out of context in time and in space. This is not to say that Detroit is about to have its course dramatically altered tomorrow, or that photographs portraying Detroit as ruin will not prove to be predictive of the city’s near or far future. It is just to say that ruin porn as it is generally pursued does not serve a historical purpose or create a historical record — and to say that such a record would be a desirable thing to have.
Causality. Humanity. History. I think these are the principle missing pieces when it comes to ruin porn. Of course, not every photographer should be expected to combine every photographic virtue, and it would certainly be unfair to suspect any given photographer to simultaneously live up to the standards set by three of the greatest photographers in history.
But I think our understanding of certain places would be better if more photographers tried. Certainly I think we would have better photographs of those places.
Postscript: Previously on 1/125
At some point during the course of my preparations for this ruinpornomicon, it occurred to me that in all probability, we had covered ruin porn here before — or at least, we had covered ruin photographs that we liked and which we probably had not thought of as ruin porn at the time.
I took a look at our semi-recent posts, and also checked with Karl, and we came up with three folks whose work seems to be, if not ruin porn per se, ruin porn adjacent: Emma Wilcox, Eric Lusito, and Phil Underdown.
“Eminent Domain No. 5,” by Emma Wilcox.
“12th Motor Rifle Division, Mongolia,” by Eric Lusito.
from Grassland, by Phil Underdown.
What makes these better then ruin porn, or at least makes them good ruin porn? They do not necessarily exemplify the virtues I suggested above, and there is considerable overlap — in terms of subject matter and/or aesthetic and/or historical theme — between these photographs and some of the photographs I criticized at the beginning of this post. But there are qualities that distinguish them, as well.
Emma Wilcox. In the case of Wilcox, I would say that the distinguishing quality is the notion of a “forensic landscape”:
In forensics, the absence of something can signify its presence. As reported in the Times, the chemical stain left by a body’s amino acids will suppress plant growth for up to two years, allowing a kind of shadow to remain after the thing casting it is gone.
On maps, the edge of a place vanishes and reappears. So do tracks, roads and the original names of things. There are no indications as to actual habitation, climate, degree of violence or calm, or even whether the area is land or water.
As with Marchand and Meffre, Wilcox is very much interested in the idea of history — and, like Marchand and Meffre, she is not producing anything that could be called a historical document in the traditional sense. But her interaction with the idea of history is different from Marchand and Meffre’s. She is interested in the relationship between personal memory and local history, and her concerns are — like Atget’s — local and intimate, although they are unlike Atget’s in having a significant psychological component. And, as her reference to forensics suggests, her photographs have an investigatory quality to them — they have a connection to the desire to know something about causes and about the course of events.
Eric Lusito. Lusito’s photographs of various sites and artifacts pertaining to the Soviet Union are, in theme, very similar to Marchand and Meffre insofar as they are a meditation on the remnants of an empire, and they are in visual tone often similar to Andrew Moore’s photographs of Detroit — possessed of a warm and inviting color palette.
However, Lusito’s photographs seem to be more diverse and much more purposed — comprising something of an ordered inquiry. It helps that his captions are (while brief) informative and straightforwardly related to his photographic choices. For example, the photograph above, of a complex of buildings standing aloof on flat land, has this caption:
Soviet military bases abroad tended to be isolated settlements, in restricted areas and at a distance from any town. They are a mirror of the Soviet state and its culture of secrecy.
Of course, you could argue that I’m just revealing a preference for being spoonfed meaning — and this would not really be incorrect. (I regard it as important that images be not just enjoyable by a wide audience, but comprehensible as well.)
This is an area where ruin porn frequently fails — it draws a very, very wide audience of enthusiastic viewers, but those viewers often do not come away with ideas or critical questions, merely with a vague feeling of having seen something awesome and terrible. Lusito’s work does not have this problem.
Phil Underdown. Underdown’s Grassland series is another example of welcoming colors, and his photographs of the abandoned airstrip in some cases resemble Moore’s photographs in which plants are overtaking human structures or materials.
But Underdown’s approach appears to be, like Atget’s, comprehensive. I do not care for all of his photographs (some I quite dislike, as I mentioned in our post on him), but one feels that he “has the entire neighborhood” of the place, and that matters.
Of course, Underdown’s photographs are a record of an overt human policy regarding the space, and, as such, they reveal human intentions and the relationship between humans and the natural world. Of course, this is easy to do in the case of the Shawangunk refuge, because that is a former military facility and current wildlife refuge, in both cases under direct governmental administration. It is not a business or residential or industrial district, where many agencies and forces are at work in contest and cooperation.
But Underdown’s work still shows that understanding why a place was abandoned, together with photographs that reveal a strong sense of that place in transformation, are more powerful than just enigmatic and disassociated fragments from across a “ruined” city.
These photographers should not necessarily be considered representative of any broader trend — they’re just photographs that Karl and I have come across in found compelling enough to write about. I haven’t attempted to do any kind of comprehensive, objective review of photographs of ruins — that would be far, far outside the scope of this blog.
As always, comments are welcome — please let me know how your reading of the photographs we’ve discussed differs from mine, and let me know what other examples of ruin photography — good or bad — deserve attention.
Thanks for reading (those who have made it this far). Hopefully, apart from whatever discussion on these three posts may arise, I will never have to think or write about this topic ever again.
Updated: As Karl pointed out, Robert Frank is not French. In my defense, I can only point out that I am a stupid American.