A Contemporary Pompeii?
Artist and sociologist Camilo Jose Vergara has been among the most systematic photographers, returning to the city over the course of decades to rephotograph sites and document transformations over time, building by building and block by block.4 Vergara was criticized in the mid-1990s, however, for suggesting that contemporary icons of decay be turned into classical-style objects of aesthetic contemplation, most notoriously for his proposal to preserve Detroit’s abandoned i92os-era skyscrapers. On the one hand, Vergara hoped to preserve buildings designed by nationally known architects such as Daniel Burnham, George Post, Albert Kahn, and McKim, Mead & White from the wrecking ball; on the other hand, he felt they possessed an Athenian splendor redolent of a lost civilization. Thus his suggestion that a “skyscraper park” in downtown Detroit be stabilized as an “American Acropolis” and a “memorial to a disappearing civilization” evoked a firestorm of controversy by seeming to give up hope for revitalization and renewal.5 Vergara, however, is not insensitive to the history of the city or the effects of ruination on the city’s inhabitants in the sometimes poetic writing that accompanies his photography. He observes, for example: “The spasms of the millennium are being felt in the city of Henry Ford, Rosa Parks, Diego Rivera, ‘Raw Dog,’ ‘Ghetto Killer,’ and ‘The Beast 666.’ One wonders about the meanings of the scrawlings found on the walls of different floors in Detroit’s abandoned train station: ‘Today’s Menu: Wombat Dick Stew’ ‘Today’s Menu: Orangutan Asshole.’ ‘Today’s Menu:
Afterbirth cooked in its own juices.’ To me this seems like the right language to deal with the disrupted lives, the lack of future, the city’s destruction.”6
The photography team of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, both born in the Parisian suburbs, embarked on a five-year collaboration on Detroit ruins starting in 2005 (when they were twenty-four and eighteen years old, respectively), which resulted in the book The Ruins of Detroit that includes a foreword by Robert Polidori and an essay by Thomas Sugrue. Their own introductory text sets out their perspective, which naturalizes Detroit’s decline as a vaguely inevitable historical process, “the volatile result of a change of era and the fall of empires,” and a “natural and sublime demonstration of our human destinies and of their paradoxes, a dramatization of our creative and self-destructive vanities.” They refer to Detroit as “that contemporary Pompeii, with all the archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification.” For them the city is indeed already dead and mummified, no less than the ancient city of Pompeii, whose inhabitants were expunged in one fell swoop by a volcanic force of nature.
This view is confirmed by their photographs, as the New York Times understood. The images are taken in darkly overcast and cool light conditions, conveying the lost beauty of the past in compositions both chilling and compelling as well as devoid of people. The captions identify the sites, and each section of the book includes text that provides more information or a brief history, making visible and legible the waste and destruction and shedding light on the past. Unlike the urbex ethos found in Beauty in Decay, Marchand and Meffre are more historically specific. Their images include photos of grand old mansions, abandoned hotels, schools, theaters, apartment buildings, administrative buildings, a decaying dentist’s office, and the Packard Plant, among other images.7 Reinforcing the view that Detroit is already a lost city, however, only two images in the book’s nearly 230 pages feature recognizable humans, and these are seen from a distance. One of these is the very last photo, which pictures the photographers themselves as two tiny silhouettes walking down an alley amid the derelict buildings of the Packard Plant (facing the acknowledgments page).8 As a farewell image, the alley appears to be an empty street and the desolate plant a metonym for the city which by implication is also empty and abandoned (figure 14). The image appeared on the cover of Time in October 2009 in their special report, “The Tragedy of Detroit,” which reasserted a narrative that blamed the 1967 riots; Coleman Young, Detroit’s mayor from 1974 to 1994; and foreign automobile competition for Detroit’s decline.9
In a series of photos of the former Highland Park Police Station, a tiny municipality surrounded by Detroit and even more impoverished, Marchand and Meffre convey the official dysfunction exposed by sudden abandonment. Highland Park Police Station portrays the chaotic mess of photographic and forensic evidence left behind when the police station was closed in 2001
FIG. 14 Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Southern Part, Packard Motors Plant, 2009, from The Ruins of Detroit, 2010. Courtesy of the artists.
(figure 15). Desks and file cabinets are haphazardly shoved together, their drawers emptied of the evidence, now strewn on the floor. The forensic samples in some of the photos in this series (including hair and blood samples), relate to the case of Benjamin Atkins, who raped and murdered eleven women between 1991 and 1992 and dumped their bodies in abandoned buildings between Detroit and Highland Park. Convicted in 1992, Atkins died of AIDS in prison four years later.10 The scope of underfunded investigations for rape, however, was revealed in 2009, when prosecutors in Detroit discovered more than eleven thousand boxes of potential evidence in rape cases left completely unprocessed; the rape kits had sat untouched on shelves for years, with no DNA evidence extracted. This turns out to be true of many cities where “hundreds of thousands” of rape kits lay untested on storeroom shelves for years and are only now, in some cases, being tested and used to solve rape cases.11 The eleven thousand rape kits in Detroit rival the eleven thousand unsolved
FIG. 15 Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Highland Park Police Station, 2007, from The Ruins of Detroit, 2010. Courtesy of the artists.
city homicides, dating back to 1960, reported in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy.
The Michigan Central Station (MCS), pictured by the New York Times, has become the iconic image and is de rigueur for all photographers of Detroit ruins—a magnificent structure whose many broken windows allow the spectator, from the right position, to see right through the building. Marchand and Meffre put this image on the cover of their book, tightly framing it to allow no space outside the cool gray tones of the structure itself so that we are drawn through the broken windows toward the interior darkness (figure 16). Such bravura city monuments are important to city-building, helping to construct communal identity and civic pride. For Detroit, the MCS became the single most awe-inspiring civic structure, a Beaux Arts building that opened in 1913 as the tallest railroad station in the world. It consists of a three-story train depot with a lavish waiting room of terrazzo floors and fifty-four foot ceilings modeled on the Roman Baths of Caracalla as well as an eighteen-story office tower. The MCS was built by the architects Warren & Wetmore of New York and Reed and Stem of St. Paul, Minnesota, who had previously collaborated to design New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The MCS was itself a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad owned by railroad baron William
Vanderbilt. It was built near the entrance to an underwater railway tunnel in southwest Detroit, at a distance from the downtown. Acquiring the approximately fifty acres for the station and the park it was meant to include meant buying or condemning about three hundred homes. Opening on short notice and ahead of schedule when the old train station burned down, the MCS was hailed by the Detroit Tribune in December 1913 as “a sentinel of progress.”12 In the period following World War II, passenger trains faced stiff competition from government-subsidized highways and intercity airline traffic. The station’s location far from downtown, the lack of parking, the high cost of maintenance due to the structure’s massive size, and the decline of the city’s population led to a further decline in use. In 1971 the federal government formed Amtrak, which took over the MCS, and in 1975 the MCS was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was sold in 1985 to Kaybee Corporation and was sold again in 1989 to real estate developer Mark Longton Jr., who hoped to turn it into a casino, but city voters opposed casinos until 1996, long after Longton had given up. The MCS was open to trespass and looting throughout the 1990s and was bought in 1995 by Controlled Terminals Inc., owned by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, Michigan’s largest private property owner, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and
FIG. 16 Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Michigan Central Station, 2007, from The Ruins of Detroit, 2010. Courtesy of the artists.
Canada and a network of trucking companies. The Ambassador Bridge is the only major border crossing in the country that is privately owned, through which 25 percent of U.S.-Canada truck freight passes, and brings in a daily toll take of $156,000. Moroun’s motives for buying the MCS are not certain, but he owns property in nearby blighted neighborhoods in both Detroit and Windsor in the apparent hope of building a second span.13 Moroun left the MCS untouched for years, allowing it to decay beyond repair. Various plans to turn the MCS into the city’s new police headquarters, a hotel-office complex, or a Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection headquarters have all been stymied by the multimillion-dollar costs of renovation. In 2009 the Detroit City Council passed a resolution, at the instigation of Detroit City Council member Barbara-Rose Collins, to demolish the MCS at Moroun’s expense.14 At a projected cost of $5 million to $10 million, this measure also failed and caused an outcry from residents who wish to preserve the station despite the embarrassment it causes the City Council, which regards the once towering sentinel of progress as a monumental symbol of decay. “Monuments become anti-monuments" observes Dylan Trigg, “as soon as their symbolic association has been subverted.”!5 As an anti-monument, the MCS figures the body of the city in radically destabilized form, undermining it as fragmentary and broken.
Radically destabilized form became a design strategy for Coop Himmel- blau and Gordon Matta-Clark, who deliberately decentered the classical aesthetic of the humanist tradition. Coop Himmelblau, a leading avant-garde architectural design firm for more than two decades, calls for an “architecture of desolation” that refuses notions of a safe and comfortable city and reflects a perceived sense of loss. Matta-Clark (who died in 1978) engaged with dismembered architecture by slicing into empty suburban houses and abandoned buildings with a power saw to produce strange and disquieting voids and fissures, calling attention to issues of gentrification and urban decay. Both Coop Himmelblau’s and Matta-Clark’s projects reflect declining confidence in humanist progress and the state of urban development.!6
Yet the MCS remains impressive and imposing both for its design and for its uncontested dominance of the urban landscape. It embodies both the grandiosity of capitalist ambition and the terror of capitalist decline. As Detroit Free Press reporter Bill McGraw observes, the city’s inability to restore the MCS “reflects its inability to control its image and destiny.”!7 This was amply demonstrated by the leading front-page position of the MCS photo in the New York Times as a “vision of a lost city.”
As the largest ruin in the country, the Packard Plant is the second-most- iconic monument in Detroit after the MCS. Designed by Albert Kahn and built by the Packard brothers in 1903, it was the first modern automobile factory and includes forty-seven buildings spread over more than forty acres on Detroit’s east side. In the 1950s, the turning point for Detroit’s economy, the city suffered four major recessions, and auto manufacturers and suppliers began to reduce their workforces, close plants, and relocate to other parts of the country that were white and nonunion. As an independent producer, Packard was unable to compete with the Big Three auto companies of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler; Packard closed its doors in 1956.18
Although it has been extensively stripped, the Packard Plant has served as a haven for small businesses, artists and graffiti artists, urban explorers, paintball battles, techno parties, raves, fashion shoots, auto scrappers, and the homeless. Allan Hill, a semiretired auto-body worker, for example, has lived in the ruined plant since 2008 and serves as its on-site historian and foremost guide/9 That people live in the ruins is a sad commentary on homelessness and poverty in Detroit. Others romanticize the ruins so that even wedding couples have themselves photographed at the plant.20 Calls for the Packard Plant’s demolition have been stymied by cost estimates of $20 million, including asbestos removal, while fervid hopes for its renovation appeared unlikely until the plant was purchased by Fernando Palazuelo of Lima, Peru, for $405,000 in a tax-foreclosure sale at the end of 2013. Palazuelo hired twenty-four-hour security patrols and is trying to raise $350 million to redevelop the site as a mixed-use project over a period of ten to fifteen years or more, saving some of the old buildings and building new ones. His long-term plan includes retail, residential, and cultural components.21
A political controversy erupted in February 2013 when letter placards spelling out the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” were placed in the windows of the East Grand Boulevard Bridge at the plant (figure 17). Complaints of racism and antisemitism were immediately raised by Jewish community groups, prompting community volunteers to hastily remove the placards. But this interpretation of their meaning misses the point of the heavily ironic slogan in the context of the Packard Plant. The assertion that “work sets you free” metaphorically likens the tens of thousands of Detroit’s auto workers to the ruined lives of the Jews in Auschwitz. Both were treated as expendable human populations while the ugly truth was disguised with empty high-flown phrases. Of course the abandonment of the workers in Detroit is not same as the genocide of the Jews, but figuring the destructive effects on one in terms of the catastrophe of the other is meant to underscore not only the tragic conditions that industrial abandonment has wrought but also the disillusionment that has come with it—the death of the American dream and the belief that hard work brings prosperity and well-being.
Despite their captions, Marchand and Meffre’s texts in Ruins of Detroit sometimes elide important aspects of the complex history they attempt to engage. One such caption suggests that school desegregation busing “proved counterproductive” and led to white flight to the suburbs, implicitly placing
FIG. 17 Packard Plant with placards spelling ArbeitmachtFrei, 2013. Photo: James Fassinger.
the blame on the desegregation attempt itself rather than on the implementation of a court ruling. In this case, the Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley blocked busing in those suburbs, deliberately isolating African Americans in Detroit.22 This distinction is significant because it demonstrates that different policies could have led to different outcomes.
In another example, the text on the Lee Plaza Hotel explains the structure’s original purpose as a luxury residential hotel when it was completed in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, causing the authors to muse: “Today one wonders which disaster wiped away the elegance of the sumptuous hotel. Its permanent residents seem to have vanished in a nuclear catastrophe.’^3 This is followed by a series of ten ghostly images, some hinting at the vanished Gilded Age but most conveying a spare and impoverished existence. In Room 1504, Lee Plaza Hotel, among the water-damaged ceiling and walls, peeling paint, the cabinet about to fall, and chairs with disintegrating fabric covers, a small television sits in the middle of a kitchen table, facing what was likely once the most comfortable chair in the apartment, surrounded by several jars, perhaps the last repast of a frugal and circumscribed existence (figure 18). The authors’ dramatic statement sweeps away the decades leading to the hotel’s closure in 2010. In its longest reincarnation, from 1969 to 1997, it served as a subsidized assisted living facility for low-income senior citizens.24 What happened to the seniors when the building was abandoned? The “nuclear catastrophe” for them was the prosaic event of city budget cuts.25 An important difference between Detroit and Pompeii is that the people affected by that earlier catastrophe were long dead when that city was rediscovered and excavated many centuries later; in Detroit, there are hundreds of thousands of people still searching for ways to survive.
Trained at Princeton with photographer Emmet Gowin, New York-based photographer Andrew Moore covers similar territory to that of Marchand and Meffre, who invited the older photographer, known for his images of ruins in countries such as Cuba and post-Soviet Russia, to join them in 2008, introducing Moore to Detroit. Moore and the French photographers often shot the same subjects but with subtle differences. In an interview with National Geographic, Moore acknowledges the French team’s likening of Detroit to Pompeii but rejects this analogy because Pompeii must be seen as a dead city whereas Moore sees Detroit as continuing to evolve. Detroit Disassembled is his vision of the city’s regeneration, which is based on its reclamation by nature, a view
FIG. 18 Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Room 1504, Lee Plaza Hotel, 2005, from The Ruins of Detroit, 2010. Courtesy of the artists.
that also naturalizes and romanticizes Detroit’s decline: “With its shuttered factories, schools, homes, and theaters, Detroit is an obvious symbol of America’s slow industrial decline. But where others see an end, I see a beginning. The potent forces of nature and entropy are starting to reclaim and transform the Motor City. These pictures are my attempt to elegize the past by documenting the emerging landscape. . . . At first glance it seems like a modern Pompeii. But look closer at the ruins. In some places man’s work is yielding to green, as at this East Detroit house. Elsewhere urban prairies and farming collectives are taking root. No one knows what will become of Detroit. But decay isn’t static. And this city’s story isn’t over.”26 This is still an architectural story, however; unlike Moore’s photos of Havana and Russia, which sometimes feature the inhabitants as primary subjects, his pictures of Detroit tend to emphasize the relationship of nature and culture, with nature in the ascendancy, as in House on Walden Street, East Side (figure 19). The greenery creates a living, breathing, if windowless, facade, as if the home were deliberately subsuming itself, while the blue garage door and blue-painted curb echo the sky to invoke a tropical idyll.
For Moore, “nature is a metaphor of resurrection.” This suggests a redemptive role for nature, which might have been a religious truth or revelation in
FIG. 19 Andrew Moore, House on Walden Street, East Side, from Detroit Disassembled, 2010. © Andrew Moore.
FIG. 20 Andrew Moore, Courtyard, Former Cass Technical High School Building, from Detroit Disassembled, 2010. © Andrew Moore.
the past but operates in secular guise today.27 Either way, however, the notion of nature as redemptive obscures or neutralizes the political forces of decline. Focusing on the natural forces of entropy as unstoppable, Moore frankly describes the basis of his aesthetic as a “romantic sense of horror and beauty” and lists as foremost among his photographic concerns the forces of entropy, color, and detail, and the drama of light and weather. Accordingly, his lush, color-saturated prints evoke the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Edwin Church, both of whom he admires.28
Like Marchand and Meffre, Moore captures the sense of sudden wholesale abandonment that seems to have occurred in Detroit. As with the former Highland Park Police Station, where the inhabitants appear to have simply walked away, Moore photographs a view into Cass Tech High School (also photographed by Marchand and Meffre and now demolished), which had been abandoned five years earlier when a new school was built nearby. Exposed and windowless classrooms appear to have been vacated only the day before, with school supplies and equipment scattered on counters and strewn about on the floor, leaving the viewer to wonder why these supplies weren’t donated or recycled (figure 20). The grid of abandoned classrooms seems like a metonym for the city grids of abandoned homes and apartment buildings. Similarly,
Marchand and Meffre photographed the Mark Twain Public Library, a branch of the Detroit Public Library, built in 1940 and closed in 1998 for renovations that were never completed. Now on a list of buildings to be demolished, the library is still filled with books and looks freshly abandoned. This image contrasts sharply with the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, pictured by Marchand and Meffre as well as Moore, where trees grow out of masses of rotting books, completing an uncanny cycle of trees to books and back to trees (see figure 6). We move backward and forward in time in such images, imagining the past before it became the ruined future. Other images juxtapose heavily ironic spray-painted phrases with ruined spaces: “God Has Left Detroit" in an abandoned nursing home photographed by Moore, or “And you shall say that God did it" in the abandoned East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church photographed by both sets of photographers.
Overall, Marchand and Meffre and Andrew Moore offer seemingly opposite yet parallel approaches: Marchand and Meffre’s somber photographs, cool and drained of life, suggest a lamentation for a state of irreversible decline and mortal rigor, while Moore’s photographs, warm and vibrant with color, offer a commemorative tribute to the beauty of decay and the resurgence of nature. These are flip sides of the same aesthetic strategy. One laments city decline as a deindustrialized wasteland yet finds beauty in decay; the other engages in romanticized reveries on the struggle between nature and culture in order to find beauty in decay. These approaches are integral to the ruin imaginary and the worldwide urban explorer movement.
Julia Reyes Taubman spent six years and took more than thirty-five thousand photos of Detroit, from which she culled over four hundred images for Detroit: 138 Square Miles, her homage to the city with a foreword by Elmore Leonard (the fiction writer and a neighbor of Taubman’s until his death in 2013).29 The book includes images of local denizens—at hockey games, an Eminem/Jay Z concert, cafes and bars, the Detroit Autorama hot rod show, a motorcycle club—as well as many aerial shots providing broad views of the desolate landscape, impoverished neighborhoods, and decaying industrial buildings, most in a cool, flattened color palette. In the back is a “Guide to the Photographs" next to grouped thumbnail images for many of them, consisting of brief explanatory texts produced with the help of Robert Fishman and Michael McCulloch, professors at the University of Michigan.
Jerry Herron provides an introductory essay. As in most of his writing, Herron’s pique is aroused by those who seem ignorant of or who trivialize Detroit’s history. In an earlier essay, he likens himself to Petrarch encountering the city of Rome, as evoked by Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Petrarch “was astonished at the supine indifference of the Romans themselves" and felt that he, a stranger, “was more conversant with these antiquities than the nobles and natives of the metropolis.” Writes Herron, “I feel like Gibbon’s Petrarch, then: astonished at the seeming indifference of the local citizenry to Detroit’s monumental fragments, humbled at the discovery that after 30 years in the city I seem to know more about its crumbling relics than the natives do—many of them, at least.” The larger rant, however, is against ruin imagery that aestheticizes decline, based on the mistaken assumption that it is possible for imagery to do otherwise. Although he finds the photographs of Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled, which he saw at the Akron Art Museum, to be “truly amazing, transformative even,” he nonetheless dismisses the work as “ruin porn” and, just as damningly, as “art” that stalks the usual sites and “mystifies into ‘poetic’ inconsequence and remoteness the past that is represented by Detroit.”30
In “Living with Detroit,” his essay for Taubman’s book, in which Taubman has photographs of some of the very same sites as Moore, Herron also criticizes outsiders and “their urge for drive-by solutions” while praising Taubman’s photographs: “There’s nothing one-off or drive-by about them; they’re an insider’s view of what it feels like and looks like to live with this placed This statement raises the question of how one distinguishes between a photo that is “drive-by” and one that is not, but Herron offers few clues. His praise for one set of images over the other is based on his perception that itfeels like “an insider’s view,” made by someone who cares enough “to live with this place” rather than someone who visits in order to leave again. “There is something uniquely arresting here,” writes Herron, “that much I’ll give the drive-by opportunists. But Detroit is not a sight simply to be gawked and groped, and then walked away from.” And what does it feel like to live with Detroit? “Truth to tell, it is not like anything,” writes Herron. “It just is, and that’s the mystery of it, and the wonder. And that’s the wonder of the images in this book.”32 Herron is understandably hard pressed to describe the difference in visual terms and thus offers his own mystifying description of it.
The critique of images by “outsiders” is perhaps driven by a sense of powerlessness at the inability to act against the ruination. The images evoke the affects of anger and resentment—not necessarily at the conditions of the city directly but against the pictures that convey them and seem to make those conditions worse simply by publicizing them, making the city seem alien and pathetic and, perhaps worst of all, provoking pity as a depersonalized response to “distant suffering,” akin to seeing pictures of starving children in Africa. Anger and resentment are common affects provoked by “outsider” images, existing in a state of tension with a more stricken sense of empathy and intimate identification.33 And this is why the visual imagery itself is glossed over in vague terms, or dismissed even if “amazing” and “transformative,” because ultimately it is the real or imagined subject positions of the photographers and their presumed commitment to the city rather than the images themselves that are at issue.
Taubman, however, unlike Herron, does not actually live in Detroit either but in the northern suburb of Bloomfield Hills, one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. She has demonstrated her commitment to the arts in Detroit and the surrounding area through her support for Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, and as chair of the board of the noncollecting Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD), which she helped found in 2006. MoCAD is located in a converted former auto dealership, which was designed as a raw museum space by architect Andrew Zago, and one of its first exhibitions was Shrinking Cities, done in collaboration with Cranbrook Art Museum, a largely conceptual exhibition dealing with population loss and shifting urban concentrations in several cities around the world, with Detroit as a main focus.
Taubman herself disdains photography by outsiders as “ruin porn,” thereby making a proprietary claim to the city, while her detractors suggest that her wealth and class position make her work problematic, giving her the influence and clout to hire police escorts for photo shoots, engage low-flying planes for panoramic shots, and have book parties at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Chicago art critic Pedro Velez refers to this criticism when he notes, “Nine years ago she arrived in Detroit’s high society via her marriage to mall magnate Robert Taubman (son of former Sotheby’s chairman A. Alfred Taubman)” but dismisses this critique of her privileged position on the grounds that “You can tell she cares.”34 Velez is right that Taubman’s wealth and class position are not the issue, but he fails to explain, like Herron, how “caring” may be visually distinguished from not caring enough.
Like other urban explorers, however, Taubman is not interested in stopping the forces of entropy; on the contrary, she is firmly opposed to it. In an interview with Vogue magazine, Taubman said, “If the book is ‘about’ anything, it’s about these buildings as monuments. No one should tear these buildings down, but no one should rehabilitate them, either.” Accordingly, she signed copies of her book at the Whitney book party “Rust in Peace.’^5 We might ask how this view is fundamentally different from Vergara’s suggestion of an “American Acropolis” that outraged so many, or how such a position can be justified when most cities, provided they have the resources, restore or rebuild their ruins. Perhaps fifteen years of accelerated decline is the difference between outrage and acceptance. Or perhaps nostalgia for the ruins that have become integral to the city’s urban fabric has become more fully embedded. The ruins incorporate different layers of the city’s history and create alternatives spaces that could potentially coexist with other kinds of urban development—something akin to Tacheles in Berlin, a ruined department store taken over by up to eighty artists that existed for twenty-two years before artists were evicted for capitalist redevelopment.
Whether constructing negative or redemptive narratives of the struggle between nature and culture, all of these bodies of photography engage with the aesthetic pleasures and terrors of deindustrial ruins as an inescapably powerful attraction in today’s world. Aside from judgments based on aesthetic taste and sensibility, what is interesting about such bodies of photography is how they operate affectively and politically, how they work within the social field and connect to everyday life, and how they conjure an understanding of Detroit ruination.
The work of Taubman, Moore, and Marchand and Meffre visually intensifies the realities of economic and cultural deterioration. By making their devastating and moving effects starkly visible in carefully composed portraits of ruination, they evoke a variety of affects, from pleasure to unease. Like late romantic art and literature that critiqued the imperial pretentions of its own empire, contemporary ruin imagery also functions as an implicit critique of our domestic status quo because the aesthetics of decay serve as a warning of imperial decline. Yet, like the work of other urban photographers, the images participate, wittingly or not, in constructing the dominant narrative of Detroit as a story about an eternal romantic struggle between culture and nature, or a natural downward spiral of historical progress. This romantic narrative is precisely, perversely, what yields the pleasure of the deindustrial sublime, containing and controlling the anxiety of decline provoked by the images through the safety and distance of representation. This mental mastery of the terrifying is the nature of the ruin imaginary. Even as it makes evident the disastrous decline of modernity, the more aesthetically refined and pleasing the photograph, the more effective the distancing.
The fact that Detroit was once the preeminent manufacturing city and is now a failing black city also allows the anxiety of decline in the rest of the country and abroad to be more easily mastered. By safely consigning the excesses of decline to a city regarded as a racialized alien zone, Detroit is seen as ultimately responsible for its own urban decay. The city thus appears as representative and unique at the same time, emblematic of the widespread destructive effects of decline yet singular in causing its own degeneration. This isolation of the city evokes a sense of safety for those who feel disconnected from the everyday effects of urban decline.
The extended visual narratives of the photography books as well as exhibitions of ruin images may be understood as attempts to complicate perceptions of and relationships to the city, and to insert the bodies of photography themselves into the ongoing narratives about the city. Exhibitions such as Cities in Transition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, a suite of four shows in the summer of 2012 that included Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore, were followed by the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Detroit Revealed: Photographs, 2000-2010, which featured works by eight photographers, including an image of operations within the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn by Detroit-based Michelle Andonian from her sleek black-and- white series Reinvention: Rouge Photographs (2004).36 In homage to Charles Sheeler, Andonian focuses on the changeover of manufacturing operations and automobile models as well as on modernization initiatives at the plant. The exhibition also included the video Four Stories (2003 -2004), featuring ethnically diverse teens from Detroit’s now-closed Chadsey High School produced by Chicago-based Dawoud Bey; the photo series Beyond Borders: Latino Immigrants and Southwest Detroit (2010), presenting the lovingly decorated religious shrines in the yards of the Latino community along with portraits of Latino immigrants by Detroit-based Carlos Diaz; photographs of neighbors, alternative urban lifestyles, and street culture from the series Your Town Tomorrow (2010) by Detroit-based Corine Vermeulen; and photos by Scott Hocking, Ari Marcopoulos, and Alec Soth.37 Combining photographers based outside the city with Detroit-based artists, both “outsiders” and “insiders” elevate and legitimize each other’s work or render the distinctions moot.
Also included was Andrew Moore’s color photo Shelter, Engine Works, Detroit Dry Dock Company, Rivertown Neighborhood (2009) in which a makeshift living space in an abandoned building dominates the composition, with a barely noticeable homeless man tucked away in the corner behind a protective plastic sheet (figure 21). Oscillating between the horrifying and the poetic, the slow exposure of the large-scale image in the darkened space transforms the long tarp draped over the living area into an indoor waterfall that opens onto a pool of refuse in the foreground. As Moore observes, the Detroit Dry Dock building, a remarkable late-nineteenth-century structure with a steel frame on the inside, was once used to build propellers for the boats that plied the Great Lakes. It was also where a young Henry Ford worked as an apprentice and was first introduced to the combustion engine. Although the metal stairs to the second floor are cut away, Moore speculates that the homeless man, who appeared to be a longtime resident, “somehow must have figured out how to climb up there and hang up that sheet. And he’s the only person that could have been motivated to do it. There’s no other explanation.’^8 The plastic curtain suggests a desire for privacy that may be violated by the photograph, yet the image provides a telling portrait of a long-term homeless encampment in an abandoned Detroit building.
Among other follow-up exhibitions, the Detroit Institute of Arts mounted Motor City Muse: Detroit Photographs, Then and Now (2013), which included works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who photographed a 1940s wedding on Belle
FIG. 21 Andrew Moore, Shelter, Engine Works, Detroit Dry Docks, from Detroit Disassembled, 2010. © Andrew Moore.
Isle, an island park in the Detroit River; Bill Rauhauser and Dave Jordano, both Detroit-based photographers who have shot the city for decades; Robert Frank, who photographed in Detroit for his series The Americans; Nicola Kuperus; Russ Marshall; and Karin Jobst.39 In New York, Another Look at Detroit opened in 2014 as a joint project between Marianne Boesky Gallery and Marlborough Chelsea, focusing on the city as a creative center for the last 150 years. Such exhibitions seek to intervene in the flow of negative affect created by news media representations of Detroit’s decline by presenting images that multiply connections between ruination and ongoing life in the city. They create more complex collective enunciations about Detroit that reorder or at least enrich perceptions of it while themselves becoming part its ongoing life. They activate connections between artworks, extend the city’s history backward, and suggest possible new ways of being part of the still unfolding events.