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Miles Orvell. Empire of Ruins. American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction

Carolin Görgen
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Miles Orvell. Empire of Ruins. American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. ISBN: 978-0190491604.

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1In the era of climate breakdown and disaster, a book on ruins seems apropos – from the ongoing destruction of the environment to the wreckage of late capitalism, much is to be said about the place of ruins in contemporary visual culture. In Empire of Ruins. American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction, Miles Orvell does more than just pinpoint the current unfolding of man-made ruination. Instead, the book provides a genealogy of a peculiar American fascination with ruins as captured through the camera, spanning the days of early photography all the way to our digital age. From the ruin as material object to the ethics of spectatorship, from Pueblo ruins to Ground Zero, the author develops the first comprehensive study of American ruin photography in its myriad and widely known manifestations.

2The past two decades have seen a significant expansion of literature on ruin photography, with authors attempting to capture the powerful place of vestiges of the past in the visual imagination, be it the “untimely” character of America’s nineteenth-century urban ruins (Yablon 2009), the Civil War’s wreckage – architectural, ecological, human – and its erasures (Nelson 2012), or the most-photographed ruins of the early twentieth century after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 (Breuer 2021). While much of this scholarship targets specific events firmly rooted in the past, Orvell now ties together two centuries of ruin cult up until the present day, arguing that it was through the camera that a meaningful discourse around ruins and their cultural meaning has emerged. In eight chapters, and numerous examples of well-known American ruins, the author traces evolving understandings around vestiges of the past and how to look at them. The book places the inherent ambiguity of spectatorship at the heart of the analysis: How do we navigate the aesthetic power of ruins as beautiful sights and the fact of what they actually represent – sites of damage, suffering and violence?

3Serving as an introduction to the early American fascination with ruins, the first two chapters deal with Indigenous ruins, including Mayan temples in the Yucatan and the Southwestern Pueblo. Exploring these sites would help Euro Americans envision the more ancient past of the continent and thus feed their own desire for historical depth. The author explores how ruins of the Southwestern United States came to consolidate a “declaration of cultural independence from Europe” (49) by cherry-picking elements from the Indigenous past to fabricate an authentic American culture. This is familiar territory for Orvell who, in The Real Thing (1989), probed authenticity and imitation in turn-of-the-century US literature, visual arts, and material culture. A particularly striking parallel to the present day is the Kodak House – an informal repository of photographic equipment in the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings around 1900 – and today’s throngs of camera-carrying sightseers exploring the “packaged” (69) ruins of New Mexico’s Pueblo Benito, as documented in Peter Goin’s photographs of the early 2000s.

4The author’s analysis of ancient vestiges-turned-trivial paves the way for the second part “Modern Times” – the most compelling section of the book – which provides close insight into urban ruins of the twentieth century over the course of three chapters. Orvell makes out the photographic “fascination bordering on fetishism” (73) from the start, in discussing the remnants of industrial Detroit and Philadelphia that have featured in portfolios of contemporary photographers, such as Vincent Feldman, Andrew Moore or – perhaps most well-known to French-speaking audiences – Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. While the crumbling ballroom of a grand hotel or the dilapidated façade of the Packard Motor Company Plant make for beautiful prints, they also document how the glory of industrial cities has become obsolete over the course of only a few decades. As much as the prints in this (all-male) corpus are aesthetically pleasing, they are devoid of human life and eclipse “the social history of urban change and the morality of capitalism” (89). The case studies of the following chapter place this question of urban modernity at the center, as Orvell traces how destruction and renewal coexist in the city. Distinguishing between “great architecture” (New York’s Penn Station) and “failed architecture” (the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis) (104), the author puts his finger on the moment when demolition became a spectacle of visual culture. As railroad travel slowly demised and Penn Station fell out of use in the 1960s, the site was left to a process of slow ruination through market forces that played out under an open sky. While photographs of Penn Station’s destruction only gained fame retrospectively, the dynamiting of the St. Louis public housing block in 1972 was immediately seized upon by LIFE magazine as thrilling and would live on in Godfrey Reggio’s civilization critique film Koyaanisqatsi of 1982.

5These examples demonstrate that the collapse of urban models is part of a larger process of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter 1942) in which older structures are supplanted with new designs, making the ruin a feature of the modern city. Orvell gets closest to the moral question of urban ruins in Chapter 5 when he discusses the unfolding catastrophe of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on screen and the ensuing ruinscape in Lower Manhattan. The nagging question of aesthetics and spectatorship is front and center as the author debates the role of documentary photographers, like James Nachtwey and Joel Meyerowitz, who “turn us into voyeurs” (133) all the while attempting to create empathy. The author convincingly discusses how the act of looking itself – as in Thomas Hoepker’s portrait of a group of seemingly “relaxed” Brooklyn youngsters watching the smoking towers from across the East River – became drawn into the battle of good versus evil that defined so much of the aftermath of September 11. Acts of monumental destruction like the wreckage of the Twin Towers, Orvell argues, evoke feelings of both the destructive and the “technological sublime” (Nye) that ask viewers to “resist that spectacle” and instead “untangl[e]” (144) aesthetics and morals.

6The last chapters of the book – covering atomic wars, environmental destruction, and climate ruins – catapult the reader into a ruinscape of our own making. Starting with the imagination of the apocalypse in popular science fiction, Chapter 6 skillfully analyzes how the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the first manifestation of the “destructive sublime” as witnessed through the camera and shaped new readings of ruins in the nuclear age. Picturing the hydrogen bomb itself, and thus the vulnerability of mankind, became a controversial act, as exemplified in Edward Steichen’s 1955 Family of Man exhibit and its difficult navigation around imagery of the atomic wars. The environmental destruction wrought by the nuclear age – manifest in the later photographs by Emmet Gowin and Richard Misrach of the Nevada test site – serves to introduce the last two chapters of the book. Here, Orvell examines extractive industries of the twentieth-century and the long-lasting wastelands they created to question how the camera reveals both the horror of contamination and its aesthetic attraction. The contextualized photographs by David T. Hanson of 1980s Superfund sites – toxic areas designated as requiring immediate clean-up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – provide a necessary counterweight here. They combine aerial views of the sites with topographical data from the US Geological Survey and analyses by the EPA to encourage a deep reading of these otherwise spectacular bird’s-eye views. While Orvell points to the camera as a tool for environmental awareness, he neglects the interconnectedness of photographic technologies and ecological breakdown, as evident in the mining for precious metals in the American West (images which he discusses) and the massive petrochemical pollution by firms like Eastman Kodak (Kelsey). The last chapter continues on this path by exploring the role of the engaged photographer in documenting climate change. The question of aesthetic distance looms large here: Does the contemporary photographer have a responsibility similar to scientists in issuing graphic warnings about the future of the planet or do their (or rather, in the case of this book: his) works, in their aesthetic appeal and awe, create a distance to the looming catastrophe, similar to disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow? The author provides a partial answer to this vexed question by pointing to the “anti-science nihilism” (203) that is prevalent in contemporary US culture and that certainly runs the risk of veiling the real threat of climate ruination as yet another spectacle.

7The far-reaching chronology from the nineteenth century to the 2010s allows Orvell to establish insightful links between an early desire for creating historical depth through picturesque ruins and the ongoing planetary ruination through war and ecological crises whose aesthetics are much more difficult to comprehend. More than a photo-historical survey, the author mobilizes – in classic American studies fashion – a whole panoply of fiction and poetry (from Jack London to Don DeLillo), painting (Thomas Cole’s unavoidable Course of Empire), press coverage from LIFE, and blockbuster movies (notably Roland Emmerich) to trace the ways in which spectacles of destruction have become impressed upon the public mind. The book completes a tremendous task in weaving together these diverse moments of ruination and the moral question of looking at them, especially given the variety of existing scholarship and the difficulty to navigate such a varied corpus.

8The broad outlook is the greatest strength of the book and, at the same time, makes it susceptible to sweeping gestures. Certainly, the vast chronology justifies the use of striking examples, like the ones cited above, that have shaped common understandings of ruins and disaster. It is still unfortunate that such a “classic” topic is rehearsed consistently with to-be-expected names of photographers, writers, and film-makers, the vast majority of whom have received ample space. The most striking example is perhaps the discussion of urban ruins and their attraction to street photographers, many of whom – despite their calls for visual engagement – appear distanced from the social and political space they’re depicting. While Orvell debates the ethics of aestheticizing misery in places like Detroit (hiding “incremental violence” (84) as he puts it), it seems that the corpus itself could have been pushed further: What is it that makes ruins so attractive to the quasi exclusively Euro American, male line-up of photographers that appear throughout the book? The same goes for photographs of “natural” disasters – a category which itself has come under scrutiny in recent years (Steinberg) – and especially the well-known Polidori images of post-Katrina New Orleans that faced controversies of “ruin porn” (Oswald). Those immediately confronted with disaster on the ground do not have the privilege of capturing ruination with a camera – a phenomenon that has been true for catastrophes like the San Francisco earthquake and fire as well. As much as spectators may not feel the same degree of awe when confronted with such images of destruction, viewers are also not affected in the same way by the toxic waste and ecological ruins depicted in the last part of the book. As Orvell rightly observes, ecological damage, violence on the land, and environmental racism happen invisibly and slowly (Rob Nixon’s seminal study goes unmentioned here). This observation would have made photographic works by Dawoud Bey, for example, all the more interesting to include, as they are set against the remnants of plantation architecture in Louisiana’s toxic landscape, also known as Cancer Alley.

9In short, the background of the image-maker and the spectator – beyond questions of beauty and ethics – would have deserved more nuance. The moral call near the end of the book – that we need to see through the ruins’ spectacles to understand their instructive value – is certainly true. Yet it would have resounded even more forcefully had the questions about our complexity of responses and our actual affection by ruination been more completely discussed. Despite these shortcomings, the book makes a valuable contribution to photo history, visual culture, and American studies at large in bringing together familiar moments of ruination and the urgent question of witnessing destruction as climate disasters unfold, not just across the U.S.

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Works cited

BREUER, Karen, and James A. GANZ, eds. Among the Ruins: Arnold Genthe’s Photographs of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Firestorm. San Francisco and Petaluma: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Cameron & Co., 2021.

KELSEY, Robin. “Photography and the Ecological Imagination.” In Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, eds. Alan Braddock and Karl Kusserow. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

NELSON, Megan Kate. Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2012.

NIXON, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

NYE, David E. The American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.

ORVELL, Miles. The Real Thing. Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

OSWALD, Maude. “Photographier la catastrophe, témoigner de l’humain. La Nouvelle Orléans après Katrina.” Image & Narrative 18, no. 2 (2017): 49-61.

SCHUMPETER, Josef. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 2nd ed. Floyd, Virginia: Impact Books [1942], 2014.

STEINBERG, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

YABLON, Nick. Untimely Ruins: An Archeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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Carolin Görgen, « Miles Orvell. Empire of Ruins. American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction »Interfaces [En ligne], 49 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 19 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Carolin Görgen

Carolin Görgen is Associate Professor of American Studies at Sorbonne Université, Paris. Her research focuses on the photographic history of California and the American West, and has received support from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the Huntington Library, among others. Her thesis on the California Camera Club (2018) received the Thinking Photography research prize of the German Photographic Society and the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation. She is a 2023 Thomas Mann Fellow.

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