“The Detroit Ruin Porn Photographer Speaks”

I’m a ghost. I pass though broken windows without a scratch.  I duck under fallen beams and glide over half-collapsed floors without creating the slightest disturbance, without leaving a trace.  The security cameras can’t spot me.  The squatters and the scavengers won’t remember me. Silent, I make my way through miles of hallways.  I creep up stairs and stare down elevator shafts.  I follow the sun’s slant from one end of the factory floor to the other.  I trace the dissolution of a crumbling wall.  I capture landscapes of garbage and half-scavenged scrap, the brilliant reds and greens of unreadable graffiti. Gone are the assembly lines, the rows of men constructing machines.  Gone are the women in pantsuits bent over uniform rows of desks; gone are the pecks and bells and slides of their typewriters.  What’s left are the sets of disaster movies, gritty urban backdrops for indie bands and perfume ads.  In the cavernous floors of old factories, in ballrooms and classrooms and warehouses and old hotels, I move with my camera like a roving eye, and catalogue the ruins.

A good photographer knows how to disappear.  A photograph isn’t like a painting or a sculpture.  You look at a painting, you think about who painted it.  You look at a photograph, you think about what’s in it. Michigan Central Station: eighteen stories of smashed windows.  The Packard Plant assembly bridge: a mile of debris and falling down walls. Gompers Elementary School: upturned desks, cracked chalkboards, drywall dust catching the light as it settles.  Lobby of the Lee Plaza hotel: a piano with a broken leg in various stages of scavenged decay: intact, missing its cover, missing strings, missing keys.

Lean closer.  Enlarge the image, let yourself stare. Hunch toward your computers, flick your fingers across the screens of your smart phones.  You want to gape.  You want to feel the relative solidity of your little life: your minimum wage job, your overpriced apartment, your Japanese car.  You want to shake your head and say how sad, how terrible.  You want to hit share and retweet, to invent clever hashtags, to say here is a distillation of post-industrial America, here is a cautionary tale of a city that didn’t know how to evolve, here is a metaphor for our ghost generation that won’t buy cars, that can’t afford houses: what chance did we have in a world where the factories are now sets for zombie movies? You want to be in a place where your misery has some context, where the ruin of your life fits the landscape. It’s not our fault, you say.  We’re ghosts. You wouldn’t give a ghost a mortgage.  You wouldn’t expect a ghost to pay down his student loans.

I could leave a mark if I wanted to.  I could kick the beam that sends half the ceiling caving in.  I could throw a brick through the window.  I could paint my name in huge letters across the wall. Sometimes, I’m tempted.  I run my fingers over the carved initials in the floors. I pause over the piano and press a silent middle C.  I have to imagine the tone, since the machine can’t make it. But mostly, I stay invisible. I don’t need the satisfaction of leaving a mark.  I have no desire to make these places better or worse.  I don’t feel anything about them at all.

Across the city, idealism fights decay.  Some blocks get rehabbed, others razed. Wealthy investors snatch up riverside warehouses and announce plans for shopping malls. New people move into old neighborhoods with plans for art galleries and green energy startups.  They don’t think about what the buildings were before they owned them.  They don’t worry about the lives that once hummed through their newly painted halls. So look now, while you can, before the whole place is demolished and replaced by strip malls and subdivisions, before the great Kahn buildings are razed, before the last of the Gilded Age mansions are gutted and divided into condos so couples in designer jeans can ooh and ahh at their exposed brick, their warped floors. Look now, before you become one of them, before you go back to school and get that job, that mortgage, that new car, before you forget what it’s like to look into the end of the world and feel like you belong there.

Someday soon all of this will be gone.  All that will be left are photographs.  But the photographs aren’t me.  You look at a painting, you think about who painted it.  You look at a photograph, you think about being in it.  A good photographer puts you there.  A good photographer knows how to disappear.

About Marysa LaRowe

Marysa LaRowe's work has appeared in The Southeast Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Matchbook, Wisconsin People and Ideas Magazine, and others. She earned her BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her MFA in Fiction from Vanderbilt University. She lives in Nashville, TN, and is currently at work on a novel.