Our Fascination with Pretty Pictures of Needy Places

Posted on: December 23rd, 2011 by David Garber 7 Comments

I was making my way through the internet this morning and came across a couple articles highlighting old and abandoned places. Not at all unusual here, but for some reason they got me thinking - thinking about our complete fascination with the images that show those places off. You know, the photos of caved-in houses and old train depots with long-shattered windows and graffitied hallways. It's almost become an industry unto itself, yet the photographs - limited by their frames - rarely tell the full story. What does the surrounding neighborhood (or lack thereof) look like? What political decisions have made these places fail? Who is still there, struggling to create a sustainable future?

(Photo: Flickr user tibchris)

Why are we so fascinated by pretty pictures of needy places? Until this morning I've brushed them off as a largely insensitive well-framed, grungy counterpoints to the mediums in which we usually see these images: glossy magazines, bright computer screens, or crisp, white-walled galleries - and there's something to that. There's an artistic draw to the broken, and with it, the temptation to keep the images out of context. Entertainment over investment.

(Photo: Flickr user Jon Bradley Photography)

For three years I lived in Washington, DC's historic Anacostia neighborhood. The neighborhood has its charms: dollhouse Victorians (albeit many in need of repair), open spaces, and active neighborhood groups. But it's better known for the things that bring it down: the drug busts, bullet-proof glass retail, the crumbling facades, and the severed connections to the rest of the city. But the neighborhood doesn't want it to stay that way, and is actively seeking solutions to repair and restore. There's much less romance in boarded-up buildings when they exist, not printed in black and white, on your own block.

(Photo: Flickr user sebastien.barre)

But rather than disparage the "pretty pictures of sad places" craft I'd like to offer a more hopeful explanation for our fascination with them. These images get more screen and gallery space than positive images. And while it would be wonderful if there was a greater journalistic and artistic effort to highlight the good, there are reasons we are drawn to the falling down: they get our hearts pumping faster and we are connected into needs without any expectation that we'll follow up and do anything about them.

(Photo: Flickr user Howzy)

There are at least two ways we can respond to this phenomenon. We can see the pictures and go on: Leave the gallery, turn the page, click away. Or we harness their energy, allow them to become inspirations, and become doers. These images serve as an important reminder that there is still a lot left to restore before more needs to be created. And we're the only ones that can do anything about it.

David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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7 Responses

  1. Judy Moonsun

    December 23, 2011

    Wow, great post! Especially for the holiday season. You’ve done wonders to this website, David, thanks for your wise words.

  2. Kara Evans Douglas

    December 23, 2011

    I love this. We should not think of them as “needy,” but as places that have simply been through a natural aging process. Some places don’t get fixed up. It’s no ones fault. As a preservationist, I believe it’s sad see a building go through this, but have come to realize, you can’t save everything. Showing the beauty in “growing old,” so to speak, is a great way to pay homage to the architecture. There’s beauty in natural, physical change. Check out this blog – https://www.facebook.com/RusticLuster – it’s a great example of art and decay.


  3. January Ruck

    December 23, 2011

    Your top image is Oakland’s 16th Street Train Station. For details about on-going preservation initiatives, visit http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/16th-street-station-chugging-along/Content?oid=3036658

  4. kate

    December 23, 2011

    can you ID the photos? I’m curious to know what/where they are.

  5. Naomi Schiff

    December 23, 2011

    With the housing slump it has been a challenge for the housing developer that owns the land around 16th Street Station to resurrect it, but efforts are moving ahead to reactivate it as a community gathering point. The Oakland City Council is putting in some money for roof repairs to this 1912 Jarvis Hunt landmark. For a short piece on a gathering at the station last summer: http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/assignment_7&id=8267013

    This station was the western hub of the first national African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Railway Porters.

  6. Michael J Emmons Jr

    December 24, 2011

    I definitely understand the sentiment this article is expressing, since it seems photos like those above are sometimes trying to capture a certain “beauty in dying” or something. But I think it’s almost always a good thing when people capture images of decaying historical buildings. It prompts thinking and discussion and investigation that may not have happened without the photo. Yes, the context is generally left out, but at least it’s a start. This is actually an old debate, since some people bemoan this phenomenon as “Ruin Porn” — especially in Detroit (see this article, for example: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2011/01/motown-or-ghostown-ruin-porn-in-detroit/21443/). But anyone who shares an image of decay is actually calling attention to it, whether they intend to or not. In other words, at least someone is paying attention and saying, “Look at this,” which often has the inference, “Shouldn’t we do something about this?” Countless times (literally), I have seen a picture of a beautiful historic structure in distress & then immediately investigated to see what the building is, who owns it, and why it’s decaying (and similarly, a couple of the above comments are asking questions about the photos above). I think this results from an impulse to “do something,” even if it’s just an email expressing encouragement or disappointment to people closer to the situation. And that certainly can’t hurt preservation efforts. Even if we can’t do anything about the ruins we see in photos, it motivates us to do something locally, to save and reuse our own decaying resources. I actually feel a bit guilty for not featuring more distressed properties on my blog about historic houses and the real estate market (www.HistoricHouseBlog.com), especially since it is often awareness combined with market forces that ultimately save many historic structures. When old house lovers see a “For Sale” ad for a fixer-upper, with photos showing a property in need of help, they naturally want to intervene to rescue that house. The more I think about this, I think I’ll start featuring a regular “Property in Distress” column. Thanks for the thoughtful article, David!

  7. Cathy Stanton

    December 27, 2011

    There is of course a very long history of fascination with ruins, often linked with Europeans and North Americans touring the ancient sights of Europe (Greece, Rome) and with the particularly bittersweet qualities of modernity, which always seems to be destroying things and lamenting their loss at the same time. You’re quite right that there’s a kind of mini-industry of watching ruined buildings decay and fall down, often in deindustrialized places–a reflection of the “creative destruction” of capitalism. Tim Edensor’s book “Industrial Ruins” makes a really provocative argument about this: he thinks we should let them decay, because they actually create useful habitat for various marginalized things that tend to be marginalized in urban places (youth, feral animals, weeds/plants) and because they say something important about the nature of our economic system, which otherwise tends to get papered over in beautiful restoration/rescue projects.