Confessions of a “Ruin Pornographer”

Northeast Manual Training School, later Kensington High School and Julia de Burgos Middle School, 8th and Lehigh | Photo: Matthew Christopher

Editor’s Note: Urban exploration has gone from obscure subculture to having its own show on the Discovery Channel. Many people photograph the abandoned places they visit, and long-suffering Detroit has several glossy books devoted to the decay of its once-grand architecture. This in turn has led to charges that both the creators and consumers of these images are indulging in what Vice Magazine was the first to call “ruin porn.” Critics have said that it aestheticizes poverty, that the visual power of the images distorts complicated issues, especially in the hands of the national media. Matthew Christopher is one of the genre’s premier photographers, and has done a lot of thinking about this complex subject. Here is his take on what he does.

There is a profound sorrow inherent in the decay of the abandoned locations I photograph.

The photographs themselves are sometimes critically dismissed as “ruin porn,” but foremost for me they are confrontations with failure. On a micro level, this means the failure of the building itself to live up to its original intent and the failure of the owners to maintain it. On a macro level, failure often indicates the market’s inability to sustain the business. To an even greater extent it might be revealing of the loss of an industry or even economic collapse.

If one goes beyond the surface aesthetic of the spaces, confronting these failures on various levels becomes unavoidable. There is a sense of helplessness and injustice about them. Shouldn’t someone be able to save this building? What happened to the people who lost their jobs in that factory? Who is to blame?

For closure’s sake, we feel the need to pin the fault on someone so we can wash our hands of the situation and go back to our regularly scheduled routines. Photographs like the ones I produce can’t even presume to have an answer. They plop an ugly question at your feet, be it wrapped in a pleasing image or not, and just leave it there for you to ponder.

The shattered windows and collapsing floors stare at you wordlessly asking, Why? Why do beautiful things fall to disrepair? Who allowed it? What will be left of us after we are gone? Why must ideals die, and why bother with life if all our endeavors end in oblivion and obscurity?

Church of the Transfiguration, 56th and Cedar (demolished) | Photo: Matthew Christopher

To make matters worse, there are no easy answers presented by the work itself, and happy stories of rehabilitation and reuse are few and far between. The Church of the Transfiguration in Philadelphia was one of the most breathtaking buildings I’ve ever seen; everywhere you looked there were more mosaics, statues, reliefs. Unlike many other places I’ve visited, there was very little structural damage. It could have been saved, but shortly after I visited it demolition began and almost none of the church escaped the landfill.

The sense of loss and outrage is still heavy among the parishioners, and rightfully so in my opinion. This is the norm in my line of photography. We always are racing the wrecking ball, and sifting through the remains of the hopes and ambitions of others. As a viewer, you want happy endings. As a photographer, there are none that I know of.

Writers and bloggers tackle the subject from a myriad of angles but the truth is that the tropes are already in place. The images can speak of depression and despair, urban blight, serve as memento mori, romanticize the past, and so on. The problem is that like the images, it is fantastically complex labyrinth of ideas and touches on everything from socioeconomic conditions to art to the very meaning of life and death. As such, no mere article can ever hope to adequately address the subject or answer the dilemma any better than a picture can.

In the face of the insecurity that this lack of closure can inspire, and since the people bringing the questions to light can’t possibly hope to answer them either, the easy option is to dismiss the subject and the photographers documenting it by calling it ‘ruin porn’ and writing off the whole subject as something cheap and tawdry. Isn’t urban decline trite and overdone? How are these photographers helping the situation? We ask these things knowing that no matter what the answer is, we will deem it unsatisfactory.

Nonetheless, as a photographer of ruins, please allow me to answer them as directly as I can: I don’t know why I became obsessed with this line of photography, or why I spend all of my time and money creating images of these places beyond the love I have for doing it. I’ve tried to promote preservation and call attention to the senseless destruction of architectural treasures and I sincerely believe this is an important issue that we have to address if we are ever to hope to move forward as a society.

Church of the Assumption, 11th and Spring Garden Streets | Photo: Matthew Christopher

Still, I capture images. They do not actually save places or people. I may sing the praises of people who restore historic sites, but I never have been able to do so myself. I may try to share whatever fragments of history I have unearthed, and present them in the form of art so that people may understand what it is that makes me love them, but I have no clear indication of a single quantifiable effect this has had on anyone or anything. I can’t tell you what we need to do to avert the disasters these sites and their rampant demolition represent. I can tell you that for all I’ve looked for an answer–and I sincerely have tried to find one–the problem is layered like an onion, and no matter how deep you cut into it, there are only more questions.

I have theories, endless theories. Buy me a drink some night and I’ll gladly tell you all the great lessons hindsight can teach when applied to abandoned buildings. But ask me what I did to keep Transfiguration from being demolished, or how I kept them from tearing Taunton State Hospital down, and I’ll probably stare back at you silently for a few long moments before putting my coat on and leaving for the night. I didn’t know what to do. Beyond the limited forum of my website abandonedamerica.us, and trying to periodically poke up activism on the part of people who enjoy my work, I haven’t done much in concrete terms. Does that mean I am exploiting the misery of others? I don’t know that either. Thanks for asking.

These images represent failures. They represent failures of individuals, of businesses, of social systems, economies, towns and cities, states, ambitions and ideals, and maybe even our country as a whole. They also represent my own failures. I have not saved these derelict ruins. I have not saved the people who lost their jobs from the unemployment lines, from poverty, or from any of the other problems caused by the loss of these sites.

When these places are ultimately destroyed, by vandalism and arson and the wrecking ball, it isn’t something I observe with idle detachment. Beyond the erasure of our shared history and heritage, the demolition of these locations represents the disintegration of my own personal past and the relationship I formed with these buildings. I’ve spent thousands of hours locating places, arranging permission where possible, and even more time wandering vacant rooms and corridors alone, trying to reflect the details and nuances through my photography and my words. Every year more buildings disappear, and while I’ve done no formal analysis I would estimate that only five to ten percent are destined for anything but a landfill.

Richmond Generating Station, Delaware Avenue and Lewis Street | Photo: Matthew Christopher

That grief and helplessness affects me deeply and I perceive the eradication of a particularly beloved spot like I would the loss of any other friend. The guilty feeling that I somehow failed the places I photograph, the people who built them, and the people who brought them to life, is something I can never escape. And, perhaps worse, I don’t know if making art accomplishes anything, or if we just create practical justifications for what we like and what we do.

If you ask to measure some tangible benefit that what I do has to justify its existence or validate it as an art form, I can’t. I create documents and records of moments that are imploding around me, literally and metaphorically.

The places I visit aren’t prepackaged and sterilized for our consumption, they don’t have simple messages that fit neatly into slogans, and in an age where nearly everything feels postured to garner acceptance and market a brand, the ragged honesty of decay is refreshing to me.

What I most feel a place stripped of its very identity and purpose asks is acknowledgement and respect, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I do my best to translate my experiences into something that can be communicated with others, and I ask that in sharing my love for what these places have become that you share my loss when they are no more. Like many other art forms attempting to wring transcendence from melancholia, I can’t give you the answers. I can take you with me along part of my own journey and you can infer what you will. Beyond that, you’re on your own. If that makes my work ‘ruin porn’ and the entire genre of the photography of ruins little more than a chronicle of failures on both a personal and a social level, so be it.

About the author

Matthew Christopher has had an interest in abandoned sites since he was a child, but started documenting them a decade ago while researching the decline of the state hospital system. His website, abandonedamerica.us, has gained international attention and is considered one of the leading collections of images of abandoned spaces on the internet. You can follow him on Facebook here.

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11 Comments


  1. Hey check out the old naval barracks in the northeast area of the navy yard. looks like a bombed out suburban neighborhood from the 70s.

  2. Great story, and wonderful photographs. The fact that these photos are taken of these endangered, and it seems in most cases terminally ill buildings is very important in itself. My hope is that these images can be shared and used by those whose talents lie in the activism, business sense, and community-building needed to actually save them from destruction. All we can hope in this world is to use the talents we have. Bringing these spaces to light via photography is part of the process to save them, and if not actually preserving them, at least preserving their memory. The question I have is: how can us non-photographers use these images to improve the success of saving these buildings?

  3. Chente- Its called base housing, not a barracks. A Barracks is a big building that just soldiers sleep in. Those neighborhoods were individual homes for soldiers and their families. Just had to correct you, military habit.

    It is a shame so many of these old buildings fall into disrepair and are destroyed. I have wondered myself how helpful the proliferation of urban exploring photos have become. On one had they raise awareness to those who may want to save the building, but they also raise awareness for those who may want to harm the buildings. Unless all those who visit the building to photograph it and “appreciate its history” actually start reporting scrappers and vandals, or actually taking the time to make sure they do not leave their ways in wide open to invite in transients, or close rooftop hatches and windows to keep out water, or stop burning down buildings with a cigarettes or tea lights they brought for photos, we are not doing much to help these places.

    In the end I think the buildings were better without the photos. What good do they really do? It may bring in support for a buildings preservation but seldom does it go past a comment of “wow, its a shame this is getting demoed” on some website. Preservation is done from historical societies, private trusts to protects a building, and neighborhood groups, not pictures on the internet. I wish they meant more but I do not think they do.

  4. Chente- I believe the housing you’re referring to was demo’d at the end of last year: http://hiddencityphila.org/2011/12/too-close-for-comfort/

  5. This is the most heartbreaking and beautifully written piece yet to be published on HiddenCity. Your photos are wonderful, but your honest words are even better. Don’t feel guilty about not saving these places – you inspire those of us who do make our livings (and our longings) in preservation. I’ll do my job better having read this. More importantly, these insightful thoughts and images can be an important step in structuring an effective societal conversation about how we can rethink our disposable culture.

  6. From seeing your photo of the interior it is so shocking that the gorgeous church at 58th & Cedar is gone!

  7. @ Shawn: I agree. His writing is extraordinary.
    I remember talking about this online with you and others before the book came out and how you had such reservations about things… I think it’s fantastic. I do believe you have the right timing – and if people in the right positions of local government can see this book… maybe we can get more abandoned properties rehabed into new spaces…alternative housing, shopping malls, outdoor parks and attractions – like San Francisco did with the Pier. It’s a thriving environment now…and just a few years ago it was an eyesore.
    Bravo to you!…I can’t wait to get a copy!!

  8. I honestly think that this is the most unbearably, appallingly pretentious piece of writing I have ever had the distinct displeasure of skimming through.

  9. “Decay is inherent in all compounded things.” – Buddha

    I do not understand these discussions and pretentious laments over abandoned building photography. The author correctly, though ostentatiously, points out that preservation is hardly a common theme in the community of people who explore abandoned buildings. Taunton State Hospital, in particular, was a rather dismal failure. Many talked the talk, very few walked the walk. So, while people will rattle on endlessly about “taking only pictures and leaving only footprints” and how these “great structures must be preserved for another generation”, when it comes down to it almost none of them put their money where their mouth is.

    Secondly, why does the decay of an abandoned building have to be representative of a failure? In some cases, most certainly, it is. However, life and death are a constant force in our reality and structures are hardly immune from that. The factory that closed because of mismanagement leaving hundreds or thousands out of a job: that is a failure. What about the factory that closed because the union made too many demands for the business to support? What about the factory that closed because it’s product was superseded by another? How about the fact that many churches have closed as a direct result of the sexual exploitation of children by clergy? Is it still sad when willful ignorance and stupidity are the cause?

    What about the state hospital that tortured and brutalized it’s patients? Is the closing of that structure representative of a failure, or of progress? To be sure, de-institutionalization went too far and left many out in the cold, but the fact is that many state hospitals were woefully out of date structures and it was time to move on.

    The state of “architecture” today is often rather pathetic and, on that level, I think there is a legitimate sense of loss to be felt in many cases. To the average explorer, as well, losing one’s favorite playground is never a pleasant experience. However, this overriding sense of melancholy re: abandoned buildings really is overblown. To call something “ruin porn” is to disrespect the effort of the artist who created the image, which is often quite significant. There is nothing wrong with using abandoned buildings to make art. 99.999% of the time the choice is to let the building decay into a junk pile, or to let the building decay into a junk pile while enabling a few artists to use that decay to produce something worthwhile. At the very least this is worthwhile to the artists themselves, and so is of more utility than sealing the building away and letting no one see it, just so everyone doesn’t have to be depressed that they would rather buy clothes manufactured in China because they’re cheaper.

    If there’s anything to be depressed about, it’s the “rape-and-pillage / shareholders come first” attitude that pervades business now, or the priests who can’t keep their hands off children, or the fact that there is a population of mentally ill people who are unable to care for themselves who are not being served by the current system. Abandoned building photography has little to no relevance to that sad story and that story is the real “failure” at hand.

    Also, as an aside, Vice Magazine (as great as it is), most certainly did not coin the term “ruin porn”.

  10. @Chris N: To each his own, though I could not disagree with you more.

    As someone who has followed your work for several years, I have always been impressed by your integrity and thoughtfulness when it comes to doing right by these places. You live by a self-imposed code of honor that reflects your love and reverence for these spaces, and as far as I can see, you never miss an opportunity to pay heed to a site’s historical and cultural significance or the impact it has had on surrounding communities and individuals. Your thoughtfulness and attention to nuance extends to the architects and caretakers of these sites, preservationists, and documentarians. The label “ruin porn” undermines not only the photographers working in this genre, but also the places themselves. In my mind, whether intended or not, it is a tool that may easily be used to minimize or ignore the meaningful exchange that is really happening here. It is also disheartening that words are so often used as weapons when put into the arsenal of those seeking to destroy another person’s credibility — and for no other end but to buffer one’s own insecurities or to satisfy the need for attention and self-validation. If anything, I think that by raising the issues you personally have with this label, you have acknowledged that it is important to you that your work has meaning and significance beyond its aesthetic beauty. While you are still discovering daily what this is all for, what this all means, and what will come of it, I know many of us appreciate that you continue to do what you do despite all of the uncertainty that you feel.

  11. Dave: No, most churches close because their parisoners move away, not because of child abuse, that is a fallacy.

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