Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

The Detroit Issue – The Heirs to W. Eugene Smith’s Legacy?

One of my favourite photographic series of all time is W. Eugene Smith’s depiction of Pittsburgh, if only for the sheer mind-boggling lunacy of it all. In this series, Smith tried to cover every single aspect of the city. He spent four years of his life, two Guggenheim fellowships and a significant part of his savings on the project. He captured blue collar workers, steel mills, shipping lanes, street signs, shops, decaying neigbourhoods, kids playing in the streets, parked cars, and lovers walking away in a tight embrace. He wanted to produce the ultimate photographic essay, one he had complete editorial control over. Pittsburgh would combine writing, music and images, and would show the soul of the city without falling into the trap of being a simple and simplistic photo reportage.

With Pittsburgh he also wanted to flick the V’s to the editors of Life Magazine, whom he saw as far too controlling. He felt that they were always limiting him in his endeavours to get the truth out. Obsessed as he was with getting it just right, with wanting to make sure he had photographed every single thing there was to capture about Pittsburgh, with trying to find the right way to tell the story and establish the right rhythm for expressing his view, the project could only but fail. Not only were Smith’s objectives quixotic in nature, some of the Pittsburgh pictures have since gained the status of photographic icons. Inadvertently, all of Smith’s work on Pittsburgh has thus been reduced to single and perhaps indeed simplistic pictures.

But Smith has not been the only photographer to view cities as single, coherent, perfectly defined entities that are just waiting to be portrayed. Another American city in particular seems be drawing in photographers of every hue and persuasion like bees to honey, and that is Detroit. After all, what is not to like? It is a major city in a first world country, which has been in economic free fall for quite a few years and has finally been declared bankrupt in 2013. It is a city that was once the pinnacle of the American car industry, a city that was once a music hub with global influence thanks to the Motown label, a city where the population fell from 1.8 million in the 1950s to just over 700.000 nowadays. Newspaper editors have been slavering over the decline of Detroit during the last couple of years, culminating in a veritable flood of attention surrounding the filing for bankruptcy in 2013. Article after article on the economic and moral decline of the city got churned out. Poverty porn beckoned. 1

A relatively quick search brings up series such as Dan Austin and Sean Doerr’s Lost Detroit, Ryan Spencer Reed’s Detroit Forsaken, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit, Bruce Gilden’s Detroit, The Troubled City, and Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled. Without having seen a single image, one can already infer from the titles a particular moral view on the part of the photographer, a judgement almost. It is important to realise how words words like these can already colour the interpretation of these series, whether the photographers intended to present such a view or not.

Looking at these series, they all have in common that they focus on the former architectural glory of Detroit. We are generally presented with large format images of majestic buildings within the city’s perimeter, usually captured in colour. Alternatively we are provided with reportage pictures of the many boarded up and derelict houses, quite often in black and white. Whilst there is no denying that Detroit struggles with urban flight and foreclosure, it presents a rather limited view of the city. People are conspicuously absent in these photographs. 2 On the odd occasion that they are present, they tend to be shown as victims of appalling circumstances, people who are truly down and out. It is fascinating that most of the photographers mentioned above would generally be seen as documentary photographers, whom I would expect to be concerned with trying to present all sides to the story. And it is equally interesting that photographers railing against this particular view of the city often seem to come from either an advertising background or an autonomous art background.

Ari Marcopoulos for example is an artist who has always had a penchant for depicting graffiti artists, skate boarders and musicians. His series Detroit therefore contains images that are exemplary for his entire oeuvre. Yes, there are derelict buildings in some of his photographs, as are gloomy looking underpasses and fly overs, but his eye is really drawn to the graffiti on display. He also follows around kids rehearsing in their band practice rooms. His images are raw and gritty, but it has more to do with how he captures his subjects in general, not necessarily with how he views the city and its inhabitants. Marcopoulos does not aestheticize the ruins, they just happen to be part of the scenery.

Brian Kelly on the other hand is a bona fide editorial and advertising photographer. With his Detroit Portraits he focuses on the many different inhabitants of the city in carefully set up pictures. People adopt a model pose in front of the camera and they are carefully lit. They are positioned in their personal surroundings or work environment. We see a woman standing in a green house, an artist in his studio, a man in a shoe shop, a preacher in her church, a man in a bowling alley, a cook in her kitchen, a bartender wiping glasses. The colours are rich and warm, the people look content and proud. Then there is Karin Jobst, a fine art photographer who has captured the architecture of the city in sunny, breezy, colourful vignettes, which she achieved by manipulating her film. Her series Detroit for John, Mary Lou & Mr. Duke forms an interesting alternative to razor-sharp large format architectural ruin shots. However, all these series have in common that they are relatively short term, single-purpose, one-off projects.

Photographers that more closely follow W. Eugene Smith’s approach of capturing a city in its entirety and through different means, are Noah Stephens, James D. Griffioen and Dave Jordano. Just like Kelly, Stephens is a commercial photographer who got fed up with the negative portrayal of Detroit. He is a native from the city and has been taking photos of the people he encountered whilst roaming the streets. His images have an easy, warm and sunny feeling to them. The people are captured in close-cropped compositions. Overall they look self assured and remarkably relaxed. His pictures are combined with funny and heart-warming stories of his encounters. He has been working intermittently on the project since 2010 and has now branched out to investigate and put paid to media myths such as Detroit being a food desert by photographing every single grocery in the city.

James D. Griffioen is a writer, photographer and full-time stay-at-home dad based in Detroit. He has been documenting the city in various series, such as Lost Neighborhoods, Be Patient, Scrappers, Vacant Schools, Detroit’s Public Schools Book Depository and Feral Houses. Like in Marcopoulos’ images, urban decline is on show in Griffioen’s photographs, but his real fascination seems to be with how nature is slowly encroaching onto the built environment. Feral Houses shows abandoned and empty houses almost completely overgrown by vines and creepers, hidden behind grass, shrubbery and trees. As a result they have a verdant and lush quality. His other fascination lies with the ingenuity of the inhabitants in dealing with their circumstances. Scrappers shows us buildings being stripped off all their valuable assets, and Vernacular Security shows the flip side of that story, that is the lengths people go to to secure their property. Both series remind me a lot of Stephen Gill’s work, especially Hackney Wick and Billboards.

Dave Jordano has pursued a commercial photography career for years before starting with his series Detroit, Unbroken Down. Jordano’s primary goal with the work was to shed a different light onto the city, just like Stephens and Kelly. Originally from Detroit, Jordano left the city to study photography elsewhere, but he has spent the last several years coming back regularly. Jordano’s pictures show a wide variety of subjects ranging from police cadets practicing, to firemen putting out fires, an old man playing the blues, a man gardening in his allotment, a pigeon-fancier, and a house covered in stuffed animals. His pictures are quite colourful and strangely buoyant. This is perhaps due to the variety of his topics, as well as the inclusion of inhabitants of Detroit from all walks of life. Whereas Kelly and Stephens are careful to portray their subjects in the best possible light, by carefully choosing, lighting and positioning them, Jordano connects with his subjects on a different level. He is not shy to show them in an unflattering light, as the picture of a woman sleeping in a parking lot proves, and he is not blind to the ruins the city harbours. But his pictures are not sentimental or judgmental. He records, he registers, he tries to find out the truth. And in this way he is trying to tell the full story on his own terms, just like Smith tried to do.

1 I have written at length elsewhere about the dangers of photochurnalism, inspired by Nick Davies’ insightful Flat Earth News.
2 Photographer Noah Stephens took particular exception to that tendency as is evidenced by the title to his own series: The People of Detroit* {*because not everyone in Detroit is an abandoned building}.


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