Rust is Beautiful

“Ruin photos speak to our desperate desire to have our world re-enchanted. We want the banal structures and scenes of our everyday life dignified by the patina of decay, so that we can imagine ourselves as noble, mythic Greeks and Romans to a later age … “

— Rob Horning,

Ruin porn. I didn’t know there was a such a thing. The term at least. Familiar with porn of course and what I thought to be the relatively new term of “torture porn” for the mutilation, blood and guts of Eli Roth and his contemporaries. But never “ruin porn.”

If you follow it out, if you take the meaning of torture porn — graphic depictions of decapitations, delimbings, guttings and the same for the sole purpose of big-screen spectacle, i.e. not considering or requesting critical thought, often at the expense of its subjects — and extrapolate it out, ruin porn is the depiction of the gutting of a once great industrialized land by lazy, privileged, white photographers, cashing in on and exploiting the blight and plight of their subjects, the people who suffer from it. At least that seems to be the argument of Vice and John Patrick Leary. 

Which obviously, sounds pretty bad, but maybe we’re talking about different things here.

They’re often talking about truly urban areas, abandoned schools, abandoned neighborhoods, and the people who have to live in and amongst the detritus.

I guess what I’m talking about is the aesthetics of rust.

I admit I’m not a photographer. And when I took these photos, it’d be years before I heard the term “ruin porn.” I took them because they inspire me. They’re part of the world I live in and write of. And that’s the industrial past that built this world, toppled it, and the graves it left.

But consider the alternative. I’m thinking of shuttered factories and the fenced-in brownfields from where they’ve been uprooted. When they were working mills, they came, attached to them, with smoke stacks and black clouds.

And I guess the response to that would be, surely you can find beauty in development. But, the most prevalent development in this area in recent years has been Dollar General, and its cousins, and WalMart. Which not to knock them, but if we’re talking purely aesthetics here, they’re ugly. They’re boxes. They’re utilitarian. They’re gray. At least rust has some color.

I guess maybe growing up here, I take a little more offense to it. I think the inherent argument is that you can’t find beauty in the Rust Belt. Call it patina, like Horning does with a different tone, but rust is like ivy, growing wherever it wants. Call it a snowflake, because no pattern is the same. And the mills themselves, just worn out husks with broken windows, exposed rebar, no different than a stubbly corn field in November. Just like an old tree, knotted over itself and scarred from growing. I hope being inspired by these things is ok.

All I know is I always turn my head to look at what some call “ruin porn.” Maybe because it’s a mystery. Like a burned out house. But instead of asking yourself, who were these people, this family. Where’d they go? You gotta ask yourself, what happened? And you gotta ask yourself, what’d they used to make here? And, where did all the people that used to work here go? Where do they work now? Who are they now?

The questions turn to the future — Where will they work? Where will they live?

And it will keep the polluted brownfields in peoples’ minds until they’re clean.

So there’s your call to action. Your call for critical thought. But maybe still porn to some. Maybe the exploitation of decay and loss to others. But they’re not all going to be Van Goghs, are they?

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