When I first saw photos from The Ruins of Detroit (2010), by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, I was amazed and shocked. How can such magnificent buildings and the entire social structure that sustained them and depended on them collapse into ruin in such a short space of time? They seem to be photos mesmerised by the volatility of capitalism, its ability to build up cities in a short space of time and the abandon them to the elements just as quickly. Their mesmerisation by the spectacle of decay means they don’t, as photos, allow much space for human activity, or human despair or optimism, though I imagine that there’s a great deal of those things, and more, going on just beyond the frame.
Today The Guardian has a brief photo feature concerning ruined houses in Ohio, which I guess will be a glossy magazine feature on Saturday. These are a different kind of building from the Detroit ones — domestic spaces rather than public ones — but as images they’re very similar. And that’s where it becomes a bit troubling: it feels as if a distinct genre has emerged, and the genre is becoming codified in terms of choice of subjects and the kind of lighting that is appropriate. Moreover, judging by the captions to the Ohio photos, its codified in terms of the kind of emotional response that’s anticipated. In between the Detroit photos and the Ohio ones I’ve also seen photos of abandoned hospitals and asylums, and Seph Lawless’s photos of abandoned shopping malls. The Ohio ones, being domestic, inevitably push us a little more towards thinking about the people who once lived in these places, but the basic feelings of sublime wonder about the prospect of an entire civilisation sinking into the ground are still the same. Let’s call it the Ozymandias-emotion: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’
What I found particularly frustrating about the Ohio photos was that there was no explanation of why these houses were abandoned. At least in the case of Detroit there’s a partial explanation in terms of the decline of employment in its car factories (though one can still ask why those factories and not those in other cities), but in the case of Ohio the feature didn’t offer any clues. That leaves us to think that it’s somehow a natural process, like the forces of nature laying waste the Ramsays’ home in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), but in the case of entire communities, I think we deserve a better answer.
I’m dimly aware that there’s a growing critical discourse surrounding modernity and ruin, and the kind of ideological games that we play on ourselves when admiring the spectacle of a collapsing railway station, opera house, or country mansion, and that there’s much more to be said.