Detroit Forsaken…or is it?

Post-Katrina I learned a new term, “disaster tourism.”  It was perfect for what I was seeing: photo after photo depicting the aftermath of this natural and manmade tragedy.  I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I came to recognize several sites that seemed to have special appeal to photographers.  Photography is adept at turning what would typically not be considered beautiful into an object of aesthetic contemplation (think peeling paint and wrinkled skin) and it’s become something of a cliché.  But if you blend that propensity with a subject that carries with it its own resonance and significance, especially something politically and socially potent, the product could venture into the sublime.

Detroit certainly has that potency.  The industrial poster child of a city back in the 1920’s could never have seen the disaster that lay in store.  We know too well its bleak recent history and the devastation that manifested itself as the automotive industry’s industrial complex fell into ruin.  As Detroit’s citizens hemorrhaged from the city, leaving to find work and rebuild lives elsewhere, Detroit lay abandoned, beaten, bruised, and photographically ripe.

Photo Credit: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, "Ruins of Detroit"
Depicted: Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel

Here in West Michigan we have seen the images, most notably in the controversy caused by Frenchmen Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Their five-year collaboration started in 2005 and has resulted in numerous exhibitions and a 2010 book, The Ruins of Detroit published by Steidl.  Many photographers have followed in their footsteps, figuratively and literally, as we begin to see images echoing one another (Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin and Andrew Moore: Detroit Disassembled by Philip Levine were also published in 2010).  Detroit is balking, coining the term, “ruin porn.”  Michael H. Miller sums it up in his article published last November titled, “Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much More Ruin Porn Can We Take?”

Photo by Ryan Spencer Reed. Depicted: Michigan Central Station

A new exhibition of photographs by Ryan Spencer Reed opened March 15 at The Richard App Gallery  titled, Shades of Grandeur.  The backbone of the exhibit is Reed’s series, Detroit Forsaken, and the show features a significant number of images from this series.  The statement for the exhibition is drawn from Reed’s artist statement for Detroit Forsaken, but broadened to encompass America in general.  I visited the gallery to see his project, familiar with Reed and his previous work in Sudan.

Reed’s grainy, monochromatic images fill one room in the gallery.  The photographs, varying in size, are handsomely presented and hung salon style to encourage visual relationships between the images and to elicit meaning.  A

photograph of the Michigan Central Station in Detroit, for example, is placed between images of the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery.  In some of the images Reed uses a slow shutter speed, blurring the photograph to produce something dark and evocative; in others he presents details from an identified city yet often makes them feel ambiguous in their location.  An entire wall is dominated by imagery of Detroit’s ruins presented in somber gray tones, in contrast to the clear color vistas of other Detroit ruin photographs.

Gallery shot, "Shades of Grandeur." Photo credit: Richard App Gallery

While Reed’s imagery may be stylistically fresh, the work’s bleak message is consistent with other Detroit ruin photographers.  According to the artist statement for Detroit Forsaken, the aim is to cause the viewer to consider Detroit as a “cautionary tale for all those great cities that danced to Motown’s lead, and are most likely doomed to follow in her footsteps.”  Much of the documentary work on Detroit shares Reed’s theme, the work is meant to provoke conversations about the metaphoric relationship present between Detroit and ruins such as those in Egypt or Rome (in Marchand and Meffre’s words, “the volatile result of change of era and the fall of empires”).  But just how much more art needs to be dedicated to prompting this discussion?  When you have volumes of work like this, it simply confirms, or reconfirms, that this is what Detroit is, providing little use beyond strengthening what we think we already know.

In Reed’s case, I do not doubt his sincerity or his motivations.  I know Ryan; he is a former student of mine.  An activist with a camera, Ryan is smart, capable, articulate, and socially engaged.  But this repetitive subject must make the social activists, civic leaders, and residents of Detroit entirely frustrated.  How can you move beyond the failure of what was when it keeps getting perpetuated?  Some photographers have taken on this challenge by photographing Detroit’s people instead of its landscape.

In 2010 Detroit photographer Noah Stevens started a media project called, The People of Detroit in order to show another side of Detroit with the aim of driving investment and residency into the city.  The project features dynamic natural-light portraits of Detroit residents accompanied by essays.  Stevens’ selective focus clearly emphasizes the people within the images, but the backgrounds remain identifiable as to put them within a context. So far a portrait from the project was featured in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article and Stevens was briefly featured in the first episode of “Detroit in Overdrive”, a three-part Discovery Channel documentary on Detroit  of residents who “progress [Detroit] forward to a new city full of hope and innovation.”

Grand Rapids photographer Brian Kelly also focuses on Detroit’s residents, crafting carefully staged and lit environmental portraits of individuals dedicated to contributing to Detroit’s future.  Kelly’s images stylistically appear editorial, perfect if one were waging an advertising campaign to give Detroit a different image.  Kelly recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $6,911 for his Detroit Portraits project to fulfill his goal of photographing a total of 30-40 residents “with amazing stories and insights.”  According to his Kickstarter page, two images from the project have already been published in BOAT Magazine out of London; a nice start to fulfilling Kelly’s desire to see perceptions of Detroit change.

The cynic may say that the flip side of the “ruin porn” coin is that Detroit is now being stereotyped as a hipster hotspot.  Perhaps.  At this moment in time, however, work that provides an alternative, more positive view of Detroit is entirely necessary.  It also seems considerably more helpful for the future of Detroit to be characterized as a place of potential and opportunity, albeit amidst the ruins.

by Jennifer Steensma Hoag
Professor, Calvin College
One Response to “Detroit Forsaken…or is it?”
  1. AlexanderPaschka says:

    “After all, that is the real work of photography: making things look, deciding how a thing is to appear in the image. For photographs do not “show how things look,” since there is no one way anything looks. Everything has an infinitude of potential appearances, a multiplicity of aspects. What a photograph shows us is how a particular thing could be seen, or could be made to look – at a specific moment, in a specific context, by a specific photographer employing specific tools.”

    Coleman, A.D. (1998) “The Image in Question: Further Notes on the Directorial Mode” in Depth of Field: Essays on Photography, Mass Media, and Lens Culture, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, p57

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