The cult of ruin

Over at the Calvert Journal, which I only just discovered, writer Jamie Rann has published a very worthwhile piece on of ruin photography. It is part scathing critique, part historical lesson – and as a whole just a fantastic read about the origins of an aesthetic that I love but have hardly given much thought to.

As many have observed, the nostalgic aspect of ruin photography is connected to a certain post-modern alienation: the ruins of the 20th century seem to conjure a lost, longed-for time of ideological self-confidence and practical purpose. The physicality evoked by these photos contrasts with the way they are consumed in the virtual world of the internet. Moreover, one of the reasons, I suggest, that ghost-city, ruin-porn photography is so popular is that its engagement with the physical offers the promise of serendipity. Photographers often juxtapose images of hulking buildings with quiet human moments — a girl’s doll, a faded poster, a family photo. The implicit message of the genre is “look what you can discover if you go through the locked door”. This makes it perfect for an information marketplace dominated by the peepshow principles of clickbait headlines: ruins offer a valuable online commodity — the possibility of a chance encounter with a sense of our own humanity.

What I found particularly insightful was the part about contemporary Russian politics:

In Russia, however, these scenes of decay also contribute to the Putin regime’s handling of recent history — one of the key drivers of its popularity. They help to illustrate the official narrative that the Soviet Union was a glorious empire criminally neglected and allowed to crumble in the lawless Nineties — a time when the anarchic power of nature was able to overcome the edifice of Russian culture unchecked by the strong hand of a leader-builder, a second Peter the Great who builds cities on swamps (for St Petersburg read Sochi).