I’ve talked before about “ruin porn” and my discomfort with the topic. I recently came across this seven-year-old essay on the topic: “The Unspeakable Pleasure of Ruins” by Rick Poynor. His thesis is that my misgivings are wrong, that there’s nothing wrong photos or other representations of ruins, regardless of the aesthetic intentions of the people making the representation.
I simply don’t know. To me, Mr. Poyner’s position is the far end of a spectrum. He may be right or he may be wrong, or maybe this is a topic that we each need to individually make up our minds about. I know that for me, context means a lot. Piranesi’s view of the ruins of the Forum Romanum, above, represents a public place from long, long ago and is therefore depersonalized in a way that looking at the ruins of a private house abandoned in 2008 is not. The degree of decay also seems to matter to me: the recently abandoned house will still be largely intact, and therefore carries more emotional baggage, while the Forum’s state in the middle of the eighteenth century can be easily deduced from the fact that Piranesi’s title calls it the cow pasture. Finally (and this is the most difficult issue to untangle) is the intent of the viewer. Few revel in the misfortune evident in ruins, but treating them solely as artistic compositions – the criticism that Mr. Poynor seems to have heard the most clearly – is, to me, distasteful at best.