Over the years, Vincent Feldman has lovingly made 100+ photographs of Philadelphia at its worst. When he asked me to write about them for his book, City Abandoned, I agreed—happily. And the result, officially published yesterday by Paul Dry Books, is quite beautiful.
It’s interesting to compare what Vince photographed, alongside what’s here at PhillyHistory.org. The two occasionally overlap, and here’s a selection of pairs that help us get at photographic intent. It’s also interesting—necessary, I think—to consider Vince’s point of view, and the greater tradition of imagemaking in which his work resides.
What follows is an adapted excerpt from my essay in City Abandoned, where I discuss how Vince’s work may appear to be part of the new and popular tradition in urban photography that has come to be known as “ruin porn”—but is something very different.
In City Abandoned, Vincent Feldman asks us to step back from the Philadelphia we know—its color, its sounds and smells—and travel with him through a parallel world of rich tones, extraordinary compositions and grit-infused definition. Then he asks us to explore the city’s past and its present on his terms.
Feldman never asks us to leave Philadelphia behind. To the contrary, his often beautiful and compelling images move us to a deeper feeling and understanding of the city, even as they pose important questions about our stewardship and the city’s future. It’s the story of a city on the edge, and we’re glad to be along for this freeze-frame journey of photographic brinksmanship.
City Abandoned celebrates dignity in the battered forms of sites and institutions. It acknowledges flaws and accumulated fragments in older signage (or in newer graffiti) in equal measure. Feldman works with irony but doesn’t let irony cloud his approach; he’s got much more to see and to express. In Feldman’s compositions, symmetry becomes a strategy for taming reality, a measure of control over chaos. Deep inside the images, however, in detail far more revealing than observation on the street allows, we see evidence of disturbing disorder. These devices of composition and content are reminiscent of the works of Piranesi, or Escher. They are also reminiscent of the contemporary urban trend called “ruin porn.”
What, exactly, is the genre of ruin porn and how does it relate to Feldman’s City Abandoned?
After decades of decline, de-industrialization, population shrinkage, and neglect, the urban landscape has taken on a familiar patina typical in many American cities. In the 1980s, long before the idea of ruin porn emerged, Camilo J. Vegara and others photographed decline as sociologists and documentarians. Only in July 2009 did Thomas Morton dub the genre “ruin porn” in a blog post: Something, Something, Something, Detroit: Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff. Then, thanks to the power of the internet and NPR’s On The Media, we suddenly found ourselves with a swirling new genre of urban imagery.
“Ruin porn,” explained Peggy Nelson at Hilobrow in 2010, “seeks the poignancy of abandonment, the presence and poetry of absence. It seeks the resonant sadness seeping from recent walls and lightly collapsed roofs, the unmet expectation of empty sidewalks broken through with weeds…” Those who embrace what’s called ruin porn “come for abandonment,” writes Nelson, “they do not come for the abandoned.”
And that takes us to Detroit, perhaps America’s most popular destination for abandonment. In 2011, John Patrick Leary defined “Detroitism” as an “exuberant connoisseurship of dereliction,” an “unembarrassed rejoicing at the ‘excitement’” that every public building, every “windowless station has become a melancholy symbol of the city’s transformation in death.” The images and their audiences confirm the collective response: “The city is a shell.” An interesting shell to explore, a compelling one to photograph, but a shell nonetheless.
The ruin porn movement is not really about photography. It’s not about history and it’s certainly not about the future. These photographs may be well crafted, but “what counts, even more than the quality of the image” wrote bfp at the Feministe blog in 2011, “is dramatic presentation and, like the better-known form of pornography, ‘the nakedness of the subject.’”
Ruin pornographers tend to be voyeuristic, which Feldman is not. They are not particularly concerned with quality, which Feldman is. His dedication to composition, to scale and detail, his choice of black and white, his commitment to large format photography, aligns more closely with the 19th-century landscapes of Timothy O’Sullivan, Carlton Watkins or the cityscapes of John Moran, than the work of fence-hopping hipsters intent on displaying decay on flickr or tumblr.
Feldman is also in the urban hunt-and-capture game, but his discourse with subjects, his visual treatise, is more that of stakeholder than trespasser. Feldman’s images raise deeper questions about responsibility. He uses his art “to get to the root of the idea that the American city is sick.” Feldman is an insider, a visual investigator taking in the whole of the city, year after year, asking questions that grow increasingly more penetrating.
If there are any similarities between Feldman’s photographs and those made by the practitioners of ruin porn, it is in the realm of social commentary. Feldman agrees that Philadelphia, like Detroit, “has had a leg kicked out from under it,” but he considers ruin porn “smothering.” He believes it brands the city as a place to avoid engagement, when, in fact, Philadelphia isn’t a ghost town, and its citizens aren’t zombies. Philadelphia is a city with a utopian legacy that remembers its past and its purpose.