Detroit: City of stunning contradictions

Slide show: The Motor City in pictures, from immigrant gardens to a Ford factory's fiery furnace

Emma Mustich
September 24, 2011 8:01PM (UTC)

Even if you've never visited Detroit, the city's name might call up an image in your head -- perhaps one of the chilling, almost apocalyptic photographs of urban decay that are frequently passed around the Internet.

But that’s hardly the whole picture, as Nancy Barr, curator of "Detroit Revealed: Photographs, 2000-2010" (which opens next month at the Detroit Institute of Arts), told me this week. In Barr's eyes -- and the eyes of the photographers whose work her show features -- Detroit is a city of contradictions, populated by autoworkers and immigrants, optimistic high schoolers and up-all-night-DJs, urban adventurers and sheep.


Over email, Barr told me about her city as she sees it -- and explained her goals in bringing the work of the city's photographers to light. Read her remarks below, and check out the following slide show to see highlights from the exhibition, with Barr's own annotations.

What was your main goal in curating the exhibition? You said in an email to me that the show is "eclectic, with many different subject matters" -- and the press release for the exhibition says its works are "sometimes contradictory." Can you give us some sense of the nature of the exhibition's contradictions? What areas of Detroit life does the show explore? What does it leave out?

Photographs of Detroit from the last several years -- seen for the most part on the Internet via photo sharing sites and online magazines and blogs (but also in a few printed publications) -- have concentrated on the city's empty buildings and streets, its lifelessness and vacancy. It is a very singular picture of Detroit. I knew there was so much more to the city; there are 700,000 people living here, and they have voices, faces and meaningful as well as challenging life experiences. So the idea for the exhibition came, in part, out of a desire to give visibility to our lives and our culture here.


I selected many of the works for this exhibition based on subjects and places that were the opposite of what I saw proliferating elsewhere -- but I thought it was important to show the vacancy and decline too. It is widespread but unique, and therefore attracts many photographers and artists to the city.

The exhibition includes photographs of abandoned and obsolete factory interiors -- for instance, in Andrew Moore's work [slides 9 and 10] -- as well as functioning factories and their workers (as in the photos of Michelle Andonian [slides 1 and 2]). Moore's photograph and Andonian's works were made at the Ford Motor Co. River Rouge plant, which carries a photographic and artistic legacy of its own -- as evidenced by the work of Charles Sheeler and Robert Frank, as well as the famous murals of Diego Rivera. The automobile industry (specifically its factories and autoworkers) has played such a large role in shaping Detroit's photographic identity.

The exhibition also includes the work of Scott Hocking, an installation artist who repurposes Detroit's abandoned factories and buildings as the sites for his art. He actually worked in the old Fisher Body plant, building a pyramid from bricks lying around the factory (he called the piece "Ziggurat," after temples made by ancient civilizations [slide 7]). The photograph carries this strange mythic presence -- the pyramid, the large columns bathed in a cold blue light that permeates the space ... When you see this photograph, you wonder what it means: Who made this object, and why? Is it from the past or the future? ... It is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. This is very much a Detroit experience: the convergence of time, place and history; the feeling that everything has been suspended somehow. Particularly in these old buildings.


The juxtapositions or contradictions continue in Detroit neighborhoods. Some are on the decline, but others are transitioning; others still are very well taken care of and quite vibrant. Carlos Diaz spent the summer of 2010 taking photographs on Detroit's southwest side, in the Latino community we call Mexican Town. He made portraits of Latino residents and walked through the neighborhoods photographing homes [slides 5 and 6]. It's a very beautiful part of Detroit, with gardens and religious shrines -- I doubt very many people outside Detroit would know about it. ...

Great photography is not only about good technique; it's also about access to people and places that are unique to a particular community. I would welcome more work that takes into consideration the diversity of our city, its people and the culture, by photographers from all types of backgrounds. Their perspectives would (and will) enrich Detroit's photographic legacy and identity.


Why did you choose to focus this exhibition in the time period 2000-2010?

As a native Detroiter and curator, I have always been interested in what the city has had to offer in the way of inspiration to artists. For the Detroit art community, the hardship and resulting national attention that accelerated throughout the decade seemed to create an environment of introspection, resourcefulness and repurposing of what had been discarded, neglected -- even violated. ... Strangely enough, and despite all the hardship, there seemed to be an awakening here in the creative community during this decade.

One thing that differentiates this decade's photography from that which came before is the rise of digital technologies and Internet access. The ubiquity of the Internet exploded along with digital, wireless and high-speed broadband technology. [Things like] photo sharing sites emerged ... It fueled urban exploration, particularly throughout Detroit, and a great deal of ruins photography emerged on the Internet, spurring dialogues in the art community that continue here in Detroit. The burning question: How will Detroit be represented, and who should represent it? ...


The earliest work from the exhibition dates from 2003-2004, and comes from photographers [whose] work had nothing to do with architectural studies or traditional street photography. Both Michelle Andonian [slides 1 and 2] and Dawoud Bey [slides 3 and 4] were interested in photographing Detroiters and telling stories about how they lived. Michelle did this incredible thing -- she convinced the Ford Motor Co. to let her shoot at the Rouge complex throughout a very big transition in operations. Access to the plant is difficult for anyone, especially photographers, but she witnessed and documented the last days of production on the Mustang assembly lines, as well as the changeover to new facilities that ran greener, cleaner, improved conditions for autoworkers -- but also introduced technologies that would make older methods of manufacturing and related jobs obsolete. It is a bittersweet story.

Do you think photography, as a medium, is particularly well suited to telling the stories of contemporary Detroit?

Photographs are not objective. I think the idea of photography as a platform to tell stories -- more than one -- is the most important message of this exhibition. I deliberately included artists who are Detroit-based (there are four: Michelle Andonian, Carlos Diaz, Scott Hocking and Corine Vermeulen) as well as four photographers from outside Detroit: Dawoud Bey, Ari Marcopoulos, Andrew Moore and Alec Soth.


I should add that, in the past decade, the rise of high resolution color digital photography and the ability of photographers to print very large scale has influenced our perception of the world (and Detroit) through the medium -- at least in gallery and museum exhibitions. The stories told by photographs become even more monumental and engaging for visitors if they look at images produced by digital means; the level of detail and visual description is so different, and it really captures your attention. Most of the work in "Detroit Revealed" is large-scale -- the largest photograph measures 5 by 6 feet -- so experiencing the exhibition in person will definitely influence one's interpretation and impression of Detroit.

"Detroit Revealed: Photographs, 2000-2010" will be open from October 16, 2011 through April 8, 2012, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Emma Mustich

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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