Communist Ruins, Capitalist Ruins
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a popular theme in Western photography has been documenting the remnants of abandoned and disintegrating Communist walls, fences, buildings and indeed entire cities.
The Web site English Russia features photography on a range of topics, many contemporary, some historical. Soldier’s’ photographs from World War II and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seem popular. But there is also a vein of posts which document the scattered, decaying remains of entire villages, military equipment, libraries and train lines within remote areas of Russia, fast disappearing evidence of the the Soviet glory days.
The area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has been especially documented, most vividly by Robert Polidori in Zones of Exclusion. Couched in terms of a universal human failure to heed the dangers of nuclear power, there is also an undertone of victory, when viewed through Western eyes. “Our system won, theirs lost. Here’s the evidence.”
Brian Rose began documenting the border and its related security apparatus in Germany in the mid 1980s, when an end to the Cold War seemed like a crazy dream. He continued on during and after the unification of Germany and the resulting work was published as The Lost Border. In the post-unification images, there are subtle signs of who won the Cold War: a replica of the Statue of Liberty, graffiti declaring “United States of Europa”.
Twenty years on, we’re turning the lens on ourselves. Katrina seems like the turning point, an event that underlined the hidden failures of capitalist society . An army of photographers swarmed into the New Orleans area to catalog the disaster and our disastrous non-response to fellow citizens in need. (Polidori was there again, in the vanguard.)
Now, we’ve got Detroit. As a subject of capitalist critique, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect example than the self-inflicted implosion of the Motor City. Once the gleaming example of American technological know-how and consumer prosperity, Detroit lies a depopulated burnt out husk.
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have documented some of the decay in Detroit. As with all contemporary images of decay, something once viewed as ugly, we are faced with the paradox of the beauty in these images even though they represent lives interrupted and mangled off screen. Come to think of it, they share this quality with a lot of war photography. Bruce Gilden has compared Detroit in its current state to Berlin circa 1945 or Beirut. His project “Detroit: The Troubled City” delves deeper into the human dimension of the problem than most who take it as an architectural photography exercise.
Even after Katrina, its difficult to fathom that a major US city would suffer this fate. But its been a long time coming. A whole street doesn’t become abandoned overnight, as shown in a pair of panoramas on Sweet Juniper. (via kottke)
If there is a single photographer who has summed up the current Great Recession and its causes, it’s Brian Ulrich. Some photographers are gifted with a fortuitous choice of subject matter and great timing. Brian’s work on “Copia”, meditations on consumerism and its consequences is great work on its own, but its wider exhibition benefits from being in a particular time and place. “Dark Stores” documents the leave-behinds of failed big box retailers. “Thrift” the lifecycle of discarded clothes and other goods that end up in thrift store economy. His show recently closed at Julie Saul Gallery in NYC, but is now showing at CEPA Gallery up in Buffalo, if you’re up that way.
Brian Ulrich, Retail and Dark Stores
Through August 22
617 Main Street, Suite 201
I think down the line when there is enough time to really contemplate what’s happened and evaluate the solutions (if any) we put in place to ensure we don’t experience another financially-fuelled implosion like the one we’re in, Ulrich’s work will make a great coupling with Edward Burtynsky’s work on the infrastructure repercussions of China’s economic expansion. Seeing the same topic at both ends of the pipe, so to speak.
[As an aside, I’d planned to include the recent Edgar Martins slideshow from the New York Times Magazine in this post. The photos have been pulled after Martins was accused of digitally manipulating the images, but their original publication underlines the continuing self-flagellation we continue to endure. I describe this as self-punishment, because none of these works, save perhaps Ulrich’s, points to any solution.]