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Photographing Disaster

Urban Ruins and the Destructive Sublime

Miles Orvell

Pages 647 - 671


Photographers have recorded disaster and ruins for over a hundred years, but more recently the spectacle of material destruction has been a central and disturbing feature of American culture. This essay focuses on three sites of massive urban destruction: the city of Detroit, which has been succumbing gradually to decay under the weight of its economic collapse; the city of New Orleans, partially destroyed by the force of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and New York City, whose World Trade Center was subject to attack and obliteration by Al Qaeda in 2001. Examining the work of documentary photographers Camilo Jose Vergara, Andrew Moore, Robert Polidori, John Woodin, James Nachtwey, and Joel Meyerowitz, I argue in this essay for the existence of a new category of visual representation: the destructive sublime. Exploring the range of aesthetic approaches taken in representing catastrophe, I also analyze the mixed response we have to such images—a response that combines moral and ethical revulsion with aesthetic wonder and awe. The essay concludes with the claim that photography has worked against our tendency to amnesia, functioning in the twenty-first century as the necessary cultural historian of our distressed time.


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