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Decent into Decay: The Ruins of a Family By: Julianna Lopez


Introduction Yves Marchand and Romain Mefre began their photo essay, “The Ruins of Detroit,” with a short introduction stating “Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension. The state of ruin is essentially a temporary situation that happens at some point, the volatile result of change.” What if the ruins aren’t a temporary situation? What if someone is forced to live surrounded by the evidence of his or her failures and ruins of his or her life every day? I wanted to explore these questions in my photo essay. My family’s circumstances are rather unusual; we live in the ruins of my parents’ failed life together. Our house is the broken and fractured shell of the life we were supposed to have, but instead we live in its ruin. “Decent into Decay: The Ruins of a Family” explores how my parents’ house has fallen into ruin as a result of their failed marriage and extended financial hardships. I documented my parents’ house, the home where I grew up, through new eyes: not just from a photographer’s perspective, but also as an outsider who is entering the space for the first time. While it is common to think of ruins as the fall of great empires and dynasties, it is more rare to think of the people, children, and families whose lives ground to a halt as a result of that destruction when looking at the empty spaces. My family, especially my two younger sisters and I, struggle to survive the looming shadows of my parents’ past mistakes. Our futures are tethered to these ruins, but we persevere and try to escape this never-ending decent into decay.

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Analysis I chose to photograph my parents’ house using my mother’s Kodak Easy Share digital camera. When my sisters and I were young, my mother used her Kodak camera to document all of our happy memories, but fifteen years later I captured a very different set of memories and emotions using her Kodak digital camera. I also wanted the freedom of having as many photos to choose from as possible, and using a digital camera guaranteed that not only would I not have to worry about whether or not prints and negatives are usable, but I could also immediately see what the photos look like. As a novice to this particular branch of art, being able to see the pictures and not being limited in the number of shots I took was a great comfort. In her essay entitled “Photography,” Susan Sontag (1973) said “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood” (p. 1). I wanted my photos to describe the experience of living in such a fractured environment. Sontag (1973) goes on to say “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait of itself—a kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness,” or in my family’s case, our disconnectedness (p. 10). Similarly, Annett Kuhn (1991, 2003) discusses in her essay “ Remembrance” what the many connotations family memories captured in photographs may say about that particular time: “Photographs are evidence […] like clues left behind at the scene of a crime” (p. 135), like the ruins of a fallen empire, like the ruins of a family. I did not want to simply capture how messy the house is, although there is no denying that fact, rather I wanted to convey the stifling, suffocating, and oppressing effect the house now has on my family. When I walk into the house,

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I feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, and I wanted those feelings to translate. I also wanted the pictures to have an almost voyeuristic quality to them to compound that discomfort. In order to further accomplish this, I used Picasa to add film grain to each of the photos to dull the colors and add more “noise,� bringing a raw quality of the photos. I also slightly altered the highlights and shadows to add starkness to the shots. For example, when I added film grain to the photo of the partially obscured garden gate (p. 14), I lost a lot of the details in the overgrown brush and brambles that suffocate the gate, but once I adjusted the highlights and shadows, the smothering quality I wanted to impart to the viewer was brought into sharp focus. Another example where the photo exemplifies all of the foreboding emotions I wanted to express is the very first shot of our house number, 23 (cover and page 3). Rather than taking a shot of the front door, I aimed lower and focused on the number at the base of the door where the wooden baseboard is splintering, the paint is chipping, and the front step is crumbling apart, much like my parents’ marriage and our family unit. As a result, this perspective makes the viewer feel as though they should not enter the house. While studying the rules of composition, I discovered that this photo violates the rule of thirds. All of the lines of the photo point to the number 23, yet the number itself is not the center of focus in the middle third, which causes the viewer to feel uneasy and offbalance as they look at the picture. I utilized the film grain technique for this photo, further dulling the colors and adding noise to the picture, but I also used the focal black and white process, which creates only a small circle of color while washing the color from the rest of the photo. For this process, I chose a small section of the bottom of the door to continue to draw the eye down to the number at

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the baseboard. The railing in the last third of the photo partially obscures the other side of the door and acts as a blockade, preventing viewers from further entering the front porch and signifying once again they should not enter the house. While this does not necessarily invite viewers to further explore the photos, I believe I subconsciously framed the photo this way because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share this part of my life. Not only was I blocking the viewer from entering, but I was also protecting my family and myself from further scrutiny. However, the order of the photos is designed to lead the viewer deeper into the house. The first five shots following the front door document the main floor, where my family spends the most time, before leading up the stairs to my parents’ and sister’s bedrooms. Even though the house is large, so much space is obscured and lost, which causes each of us to feel trapped within our own home. The rooms on the second floor are not quite as claustrophobic and oppressive, but the sense of disquiet and apprehension remains because the photos are taken from the doorways rather than fully entering the rooms. Once outside, the viewer is confronted with the broken pieces of our childhood playground and the rusted garden gate, leading the viewer out and away from the last of our ruins.

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Works Cited Kuhn, A. (1991, 2003). Remembrance. In A. Wells (Ed.), The photography reader (pp. 395 – 401). New York, NY: Routledge. Marchand, Y. & Mefre, R. (n.d.). The Ruins of Detroit. Retrieved from http://www.marchandmeffre.com/index.html Sontag, S. (1973, October 18). Photography. The New York review of books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1973/oct/18/photography/?pagination=false&printpage=true

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Decent into Decay: The Ruins of a Family