< Ruin Porn

Transcript

Friday, September 25, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Detroit has been slammed by our current economic woes. Actually, it was slammed before our current economic woes. Its unemployment rate is more than double the national average, and over the past 60 years its population has shriveled from nearly two million to roughly half of that, and it’s still shriveling. The recession, pervasive as it is, can be maddeningly tough to document, especially for photojournalists. You can't take a picture of the GDP. But Detroit, with its shuttered factories and empty train stations, is chock full of potent pictures of decline. The problem is, some of those pictures are pretty misleading. Vice Magazine’s Thomas Morton recently asked a local photographer to take him on a tour of Detroit’s most photographed icons of decay for a feature on what he calls “ruin porn.” At one site in particular, Morton noticed that photographers were essentially cropping out the adjacent prosperity.

THOMAS MORTON: And so, he took us on top of this mound where he had taken one of the pictures that really, really evokes this desolation, but if you tilt the camera even just like a little bit to the right or to the left on one side [LAUGHS] there’s this really well-kept food factory building with a nicely manicured lawn out front, and the other way there’s an office building that when we there everybody was out like eating their lunch; it was bustling. There was all this activity.

BOB GARFIELD: A wider shot would have spoiled the mood, eh?

THOMAS MORTON: That is true. Michigan Grand Central Terminal, which is a huge, dilapidated old train station, it’s been that way since the '80s and there’s been a lot of pictures of it, but it’s kind of considered like an iconic shot to be matched up with the current stories about the bottom falling out of the automotive industry, and such. But it’s just, it’s disingenuous. It’s like going to the base of Roosevelt Island and taking pictures of the old mental hospital from the '50s to underscore some point about “Obama Care.”

BOB GARFIELD: You singled out one publication for [LAUGHS] particular disdain, and that was Time Magazine.

THOMAS MORTON: Our photographer told us he'd been called up by this reporter from Time, and realized when he went to pick him up he was - he had been dropped off in the city, basically, and he was only there – he had to be back in, like, eight hours. And they expected him to, you know, be able to get the feel of the city in that little [LAUGHS] eight-hour span. Within the course of two months they ran a pair of photo essays about Detroit’s desolation, the first of which was called The Remains of Detroit, and it featured, I think, 10 or 11 pictures that were all from just three or four sites, and they were the big ones, the ones you always see. There was the Packard Auto Plant.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, wait, wait, that’s a good one because it’s an abandoned automotive plant, so that should be a perfectly legitimate symbol for the destruction of a city in progress, right?

THOMAS MORTON: The only problem is it was shut down in 1957 and it hasn't been open since.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Okay, so they're a little bit late on the Packard closing.

THOMAS MORTON: Yep.

BOB GARFIELD: What are the other usual venues for these documents of despair?

THOMAS MORTON: The three big ones, as featured prominently in this Time photo essay, they're the Packard Plant, there’s the Fisher Body Plant, which has been shut down a while, I don't think as long as the Packard Plant, and then there’s the train station, which has been shut down since the '80s. But what was interesting about it was what they did with the Packard Plant and the Fisher Plant. There would be one picture that was an interior, and it would say Packard Auto Plant; you know, the caption would explain what the photo was. And then there would be another one that was taken right outside the Packard Auto Plant, but instead of referencing the plant, it would say “Bellevue Avenue,” which is where the Packard Auto Plant is located. And then they repeated that at the Fisher Body Plant, went outside, and it was still - it’s still a shot of the plant but it says “Hasting Avenue.”

BOB GARFIELD: Creating the illusion that there is at least twice as much urban devastation.

THOMAS MORTON: And creating the illusion that their photographer went to twice as many sites as [LAUGHS] he actually did.

BOB GARFIELD: But if a reporter were caught repeatedly leaving out key facts that changed the context of, let's say, a direct quote or otherwise manipulating reality in the story, he wouldn't be long for his job, or she.

THOMAS MORTON: I think when you’re presented with a photo and then a little bit of description of it, the image stands so strongly that it’s almost hard to argue it; you’re throwing what seem like minor quibbles at this shot of utter desolation.

BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any thoughts as to what compels us as humans to be so fascinated with this kind of documentary photography? Is it rubbernecking, like as if you were passing the scene of a car crash?

THOMAS MORTON: A little bit. I think people just like a good ruin. I mean, setting aside like any kind of like deep philosophical implications of it, it’s just people like a good smashed-up thing. I know I do.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Thomas. Thank you so much.

THOMAS MORTON: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Thomas Morton wrote about desolation porn for Vice.