Rick Poynor | Essays

The Unspeakable Pleasure of Ruins

Icon, March 2012. Cover photograph: Bryan Allen. Source: Unknown Fields Division

In the March issue of Icon magazine, devoted to ruins, deputy editor Will Wiles files a report from the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine. The name might not be instantly familiar, but everyone has heard of the nearby town of Chernobyl, site, in April 1986, of the world’s worst nuclear reactor disaster. Poisoned, deadly, uninhabitable and abandoned, the 19-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl has become the Holy Grail — as one of Wiles’s interviewees puts it — for visitors who want the ultimate and most exclusive thrill available, with enormous difficulty, to urban explorers. Plans to open the zone to limited tourism in 2011 came to nothing, but Wiles got in on a tour organized by the Architectural Association in London’s irresistibly named Unknown Fields Division (sign me up now). Needless to say, a visit is still highly risky — contact with a stray particle of strontium or caesium could kill you eventually — and has to be tightly controlled.

It’s a fascinating read, though Icon’s pictures are a bit disappointing. No one can get too near to the “sarcophagus” enclosing the reactor and most of the scenes of flaking walls and scattered debris could be anywhere dilapidated. They do have a great picture showing how, in just a quarter of a century, the inexorable forest has burst through the fabric of the city and engulfed the empty buildings in greenery. But there is nothing to rival the many incredible and widely seen photographs taken of the urban devastation in Detroit.

It’s extraordinary, to someone who doesn’t live in Detroit or elsewhere in America, how contentious those pictures have become. They are the prime, disreputable exhibits of so-called “ruin porn,” a term widely used now in the US, though not as yet much in evidence in the UK. I dislike the coinage intensely and I’m not surprised that thoughtful, well-intentioned photographers are annoyed to be smeared with it. Ruin porn is a corrosively repeatable meme that makes any picture of ruins seem suspect. In an essay for Places, Jerry Herron suggests that pictures like those by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre in The Ruins of Detroit (showing at Wilmotte Gallery in London, February 24 to April 5) foreclose action, “except for the connoisseur-like contemplations of the solitary spectator, who is freed to look at the worst, without any necessity of further exertion.”

You could say that about anyone looking at any kind of picture at a remove from a scene or event. The moralism is misplaced because it hinges on an impossibly utopian notion of how viewers, and seemingly all viewers, could respond to an image. What exertions does Herron expect of those who viewed Marchand and Meffre
’s pictures with horrified amazement in, for instance, a British newspaper, which is where I first encountered them? (I had already visited Detroit several times and seen the decay.) If inaction when confronted with the ocean of pictures is truly a problem, then the real complaint is with human nature, with politics, with the media, with life, and not, uniquely, with pictures of ruins. Meanwhile, plenty of people with a good reason to act will continue to find ways to act with or without the encouragement of photos.

Laboratory 4, Orford Ness, Suffolk, 2007

Laboratory 1 and Laboratory 3, Orford Ness, Suffolk, 2007 

If pictures of ruins are ruin porn, then presumably visiting actual ruins is ruin sex (see how stupid this metaphor is). I know which I would rather do. And Chernobyl must be a mind-blower. Not having had that pleasure, I’m showing here some pictures I took at Orford Ness, a long shingle spit on the Suffolk coast in Britain that was formerly used for secret weapons testing by the Ministry of Defence and is now a nature reserve. The ruins of the laboratories have been allowed to stand, with the assumption that they will gradually decline, and several cannot be visited without a guide, but you can get some way into Laboratory 1 on your own. The spit is highly exposed to the elements; the site can only be reached by a small ferry and on the day I visited with a friend, the place was deserted. The sky was overcast, a cold wind blew, rain lashed down, we were soaked the whole time, and moisture got into my camera lens. It certainly added to the atmosphere of the pictures. I thought of Laboratory 1 again this week while reading Geoff Dyer’s Zona, a book about Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, in which a guide, Stalker, takes two men, Writer and Professor, into a damp, ruinous former industrial zone in search of a mysterious room in which their wishes will be fulfilled. Spookily, the 1979 film seems to prophesy the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Laboratory 1, Orford Ness, Suffolk, 2007

The curious thing about American disapproval of “aestheticized” pictures of ruins is that it seems ahistorical. Perhaps the US, as a younger country, is just less used to the presence and idea of ruins. Maybe ruins, as signs of thwarted hopes and failure, offend deeply against national positivity so that photographing them, appearing to enjoy what the pictures show, is felt to be in horrible bad taste. Hard to know: I don’t feel that way. Where I come from, a childhood trip in the family car at the weekend to look at a half-ruined castle or monastery was almost routine. Europe is littered with lovely ruins. There is a tradition, many centuries long, of visiting them, admiring them, musing on them, and depicting them.

Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins (2001) is a wonderfully written account of art history and literature’s relationship with the ruin, from Gustave Doré’s New Zealander of 1872 contemplating the crumbling edifices of a future London to John Piper’s Second World War paintings of bomb-damaged Coventry and Bath (Woodward also discusses W.G. Sebald’s visit to Orford Ness in The Rings of Saturn). Brian Dillon’s new book Ruins, in the excellent Documents of Contemporary Art series, has 20th-century texts on our complex reactions to ruins by Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin (The Arcades Project) and Rose Macaulay (Pleasure of Ruins, 1953). The reductive “ruin porn” tag ignores the cultural history of the ruin, along with its deeper philosophical dimensions. (I’d better hasten to make it clear, though, that I’m not suggesting that Detroit’s condition isn’t alarming, or that it shouldn’t be understood as evidence of political and economic misdirection. Clearly it should.)

Laboratory 1, Orford Ness, Suffolk, 2007 

Nevertheless, there are many reasons to be fascinated by ruins. For me, this attraction is first of all about being in the place. (Photos of ruins function in the same way that all kinds of photos function: they fire the imagination and provoke a desire to see for yourself.) The idea that best explains my love of ruins is the quest for re-enchantment. The abandoned ruin is a special zone charged with an intensity and a potential for revelation that most ordinary, complete and comfortable places lack. The more corporate daily experience becomes, the more some sites of ruination can offer an interlude of release into a refuge that is not accessible to crowds (it may well be unsafe), not overseen by officialdom, and not commercialized. Some regard these fractured spaces as being loaded with radical and even utopian potential. I know I have felt moments of inner peace, elation and great possibility in these supposedly melancholy places; I have also experienced enough to admit that risk is a keen part of the pleasure. Walking on the Great Wall of China, I came to the end of the maintained, official concourse. No one was around to stop me — there was no one around at all — so I ignored the danger sign, climbed over the half-hearted barrier, and kept on going in the immense silence above the landscape along the top of the unrepaired wall. 

Photographs: Rick Poynor 

See also:
On My Screen: Bill Morrison’s Decasia 

Posted in: History, Photography, Social Good

Comments [16]

We are having a “ruins” moment in the UK:

Brian Dillon writes about the cultural history of ruins.

John Coulthart at Feuilleton shows spreads from photographer Roloff Beny’s 1964 illustrated version of Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins.

Photographs of Pripyat by artists Jane and Louise Wilson are on show at Dundee Contemporary Arts in Dundee.

The March/April issue of Intelligent Life magazine, published by The Economist, has a photo-essay by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre titled “American Ruins.” They visit disused industrial buildings in Ashley, Port Richmond and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Oradell, New Jersey; Baltimore, and Philadelphia. “The columns and pilasters of these immense buildings recall a more assertive past.” Not online, but presumably included in the iPad app.
Rick Poynor

Thanks for the post.

I love Tarkovsky's films, but had never heard of the Dyer book you mention. I look forward to reading it.

Some of the photos of Laboratory 1 remind me very much of the work of the architect, Carlo Scarpa, specifically his Brion Cemetery. Most assuredly, he too must have taken great pleasure in ruins.


Craig, I haven't been there, but looking at pictures of the cemetery, I see your point. Next time I'm in Italy . . .

It does remind us of the way that chance, through natural environmental decay, becomes a co-author of the ruin. Laboratory 1, as originally built, would have been an unexceptional concrete box.
Rick Poynor

Interesting comment on American dissapproval of ruin porn--many americans (myself included) are biased to be always looking forward, with visions of progress, for better or worse. I am told that many Detrioters are puzzled by European photographers scraping around.

Anyway, like any aestheticized image (like a sleek rendering of a new building), pictures of ruin seem to require some context or they feel empty. Each picture seems to require a story, a context, a place, and maybe a picture of what it was in its heyday. Or else it is just-kind of pornographic/amusement art.
Mike Lowe

The 'Abandoned Places' blog, http://abandoned-places.com/index.html has been documenting ruins for years. Recommend it highly.
Abigail Featherstonehaugh

I love these images, an echo of the works of Russell Mills and George Snow in the late 70's and 80's.

George Snow

Am reminded of your article on Should we See Corrosive Images. Although the contexts are entirely different, the motif across both contexts is devastation, or the extremity of it.

Benito, I see you're sticking with "ruin porn" and "pornographic amusement." Wonder what response I'd get from sports fans if I were to suggest that all those pictures of sports people in action are "sport porn." Pictures of lovely gardens: garden porn. Pictures of clouds in the sky: cloud porn. Etc, etc. All I get from the phrase is a sense that its users have ambivalent feelings about actual "porn porn."

Abigail, that's an interesting site, thanks. Particularly great to hear about it from a famous seventeenth-century ghost.

George, much appreciated. You got me there, but then I think you know that. The late 1970s/1980s post-punk visual preoccupation with distressed surfaces, decay and texture went pretty deep.

Geetu, you might like this one about photos of surface wreckage.
Rick Poynor

I thought some might be interested in how this plays out in the "real world"(I hope the link works)


Aside from the original poster not knowing much of the history of portraying ruins(he calls it a "recent" trend, I find it revealing on how much interplay goes on when "2 worlds collide"
Paul Pickard

I'd worry about getting hurt or getting exposed to toxins photographing these although they are oddly beautiful.

I'm assuming Rick that you just didn't worry about this and that you made it out alive without getting some sickness/etc? LOL


Thanks for your concern, Christine, but there was no great danger in photographing Laboratory 1 — the other laboratories, as I mentioned, are off-limits. I wouldn't class myself as an "urban explorer," which is a much more extreme and risky undertaking.

For an insight into just how extreme (and macho) this pastime can be, take a look at the "best of" page on the Sleepy City website: for instance, the entry on the "DIY Supervillain Hideout" where our fearless (though also professionally equipped) explorers get into the 100-year-old tunnel behind the Niagara Falls.

Which brings me to Paul's nice link, a Railway Preservation forum, where one gains a good sense of just what a pain — practical, medical and legal — all this unauthorized wandering about and taking pictures can be. As one of the participants puts it: "Ah, fer chrissakes you budding photographers, just go shoot 'art nudes.'"
Rick Poynor

Irving Gill;
“We should build our house simple, plain and substantial as a boulder, then leave the ornamentation of it to Nature, who will tone it with lichens, chisel it with storms, make it gracious and friendly with vines and flower shadows as she does the stone in the meadow."

Rick, your comment that "I have felt moments of inner peace, elation and great possibility in these supposedly melancholy places" really resonates. It is fascinating that functional, utilitarian, engineered structures that are mostly free from the language of design and architecture can evolve from something we would never notice into things we find compelling and beautiful.

I've been photographing the industrial ruins throughout the Bay Area in California for years. Many of these structures really are Americas cathedrals. If anyone is curious here is a link to my work: erikschmitt.com
erik schmitt

I believe that the term "ruin porn" implies a couple of things. One is that fact that these images are ubiquitous, and they keep being made because they are compelling. And the second may be that there may be an aspect of "porn guilt" to enjoying the beautifully textured photographs of other people's ruined buildings and cities. Is there an architectural based word along the lines of schadenfreude? It is one thing to visit and be intrigued by visiting ruins from ages past, but quite another for the people who have to live in present day among the ruins of merely a generation ago. I think for Americans like me, the images of decaying (and once thriving) Detroit represent not so much an offense to our looking forward positivity but that they represent writ large our inability to be able to maintain a livable city. I do see the beauty in of these images as you do but it can be "soul crushing" to live amongst these present day ruins and it is just a bit difficult to compartmentalize those two thoughts.
Phil Unetic

Erik, thanks for the link. Your pictures of buildings lying low in the picture frame under big skies are very effective.

Phil, I can see this from the point of view of someone living in Detroit. It came as a sobering shock a few years ago to be driven around neighborhoods where every second or third house was in a state of dilapidation. Clearly, photographs of Detroit became a visual news story around the world because no one expected to see such sights in a land of wealth and abundance. I agree that one might feel guilt looking at and taking pleasure from such images, though that feeling will be more intense the closer you are to the circumstances that the pictures represent. But I can't see that repetition of a genre of images turns them into “porn.”

I wasn't only talking about ruins from the distant past. Present-day ruins are everywhere. There are many abandoned factories and industrial buildings throughout Europe. People have been exploring them and photographing them for years. Britain has seen the same calamitous loss of its manufacturing industry. There are streets in London where house after house is abandoned, boarded up and falling apart. This isn't a uniquely American phenomenon (even though Detroit is an extreme case in the scale of its collapse), and dismay about what has happened in Detroit and concern at how it has been photographed can't be the last word on our many-sided responses to the reality and depiction of ruins.
Rick Poynor

Context for the 'ruin porn' phrase may help clarify this discussion. Though I can't track the first instance of its occurrence, when Detroit resident John Patrick Leary deployed it in early 2011 in Guernica (Detroitism), a lot of discourse built up around the idea. Leary's specific argument centers on non-resident photographers who come to Detroit, take (arguably marvelous) photographs, and leave to broadcast the city as an exotic site of ruin fetish, reducing a complex and very human story. 'Parachuting in' suggests the glancing approach, the porn value.
But major cities across postindustrial regions (as you point out, not just in North America) are the sites for exploration and image creation of these sites. Urban planners of the future have to contend with the novel problem of designing for shrinkage, not growth; dweller/users will only get more opportunities to decide how to experience the leftovers. There is a romantic underpinning to the looking that exceeds the connotations of the pornographic gaze.

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