Porn, Kitsch, and Meaning

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

— Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964

While Vivian Maier may be the slowest developing internet meme ever, the ruin porn discussion is running a close second in photography circles. What started off as just critiquing why people dismiss urban exploration and ruin photography (and whether or not it is legitimate to do so) has turned into a more general discussion on photographic honesty and idealized landscapes and, finally, to what we mean when we dismiss something as porn.

Two recent posts have finally helped me figure out my thinking on all this.

The first, on 1/125, finally gets into the concept of what people mean when they dismiss something as porn.

But I think there is one strictly functional use of the word — a use which is not a definition — that runs through all of these “porn” genre identifications: Porn is boring.

The second, from Brian Moriarty,  actually doesn’t involve photography at all but addresses another long-developing meme. In this case, whether video games can/will ever be art. And by extension, what exactly is art. The discussion on kitsch is where the coin dropped for me.

One: Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.

Two: The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.

Three (and most important): Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.

Aside from the lust, desire, or voyeuristic aspects of anything dismissed as porn, porn and kitsch are basically interchangeable terms. Run through the three-point kitsch checklist. If there’s no there there and it’s all superficial, kitsch. If the appeal involves lust, desire, or voyeurism, porn.

This is not to say that all ruin, travel, or food photography is inherently porn. It’s just when the photograph becomes obvious and meaningless that it’s worth dismissing.

Two examples of ruin photography and urban exploration that I particularly like and which I believe do enrich our associations with the depicted objects.

Phillip Buehler’s photography, especially his Ellis Island work. In this case the photographs from 1974 show both what became of Ellis Island after it closed and what had to be cleaned up for its restoration into a National Park. There’s also so much history and function in the location that the abandoned ruins revealed things by their emptiness.

Michael Cook’s urban exploration of the Toronto Power Company tailrace. In this case, the depicted objects are massive public works which most people didn’t even know existed. That things like this were used to provide power. And that we built things like this for purely functional purposes is mindblowing.

13 responses to “Porn, Kitsch, and Meaning

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