San Francisco Chronicle | Philip Jarmain extracts beauty from grains of decay | Kenneth Baker / by Philip Jarmain

Disasters - social and ecological, gradual or headlong - spell photographic opportunity. We who find this a little distasteful have to bear in mind that photography has contributed in myriad ways to the world whose suffering it witnesses.

Just consider the splendid pictures of ruined pre-Depression architecture in Detroit that Canadian photographer Philip Jarmain shows at Meridian.

Then recall Robert Polidori's pictures of mildewed grandeur in Havana and of Chernobyl's "exclusion zone," or Richard Misrach's pictures of Louisiana's Cancer Alley, seen this summer at Stanford.

Hurricane Katrina inspired a small shelf full of monographs by photographers renowned and little-known, some plaintive, some outraged, some possibly exploitative. Further back in time, World War I attuned European camera workers of the 1920s to the surrealism stalking peacetime in the modern age.

Jarmain's images have both formal and topical power. As records of abandonment they resemble, too closely for comfort at times, the work of Bay Area photographer Katherine Westerhout, who is known for her pictures of ruined interiors.

Jarmain's pictures owe some of their formal impact to Detroit's scabrous physical ruins: the camera, a disembodied eye, can extract beauties from the textures of decay. His work gets some of its topical edge from Detroit's recent declaration of hopeless insolvency.

Many critical observers identify the Motor City's breakdown with the functional bankruptcy of industrialism and the moral bankruptcy of finance capitalism. But not even a long photo essay could substitute for the social analysis that this calamity demands.

Jarmain's pictures hit like dispiriting blows against which even denial and victim-blaming serve as pitiable defenses. They leave us wondering whether to feel sorry for others or for ourselves, which at best might blur the lines of moral exclusion we like to draw.

In some pictures, such as "The Lee Plaza Ballroom, Architect: Charles Noble, 1929" (2011), nothing looks fresher than the graffiti.

Seldom do we see a hint of redemptive salvage or reuse. The interior of "Michigan Theatre, Architects: Rapp and Rapp, 1926" (2013) has a basketball hoop with intact net toward one corner, the sole sign of life in its vast space. The ornately decorated remains of the theater's ceiling vaults loom overhead like a lurid hallucination within the building's stark brick shell.

Jarmain's pictures - at least in the present selection - seem now to tilt toward indictment, now toward elegy, finally settling into the probity of documentary.

That ambivalence - if ambivalence is the word - suits viewers' uncertainty as to the pleasure they ought to take in these images of loss and defeat. The exhibition title "American Beauty" contains at least a hint of reproachful sarcasm.