Monthly Archives: August 2009

Editors and Image Makers: On Photographing Detroit, Part 1

One of the most important jobs in the media, that of the editor, often goes unseen. A well-edited film is seamless in its delivery. There are no awkward cuts or pauses, and the plot transcends time and distance effortlessly. Recently Detroit has been a prime topic of interest both in the national media and in film. With the copious number of photographs and footage of the city circulating the Internet and television, I can’t help but wonder, what is the edited version of Detroit that resides in the minds of the most of Americans? What are the parts left behind on the cutting room floor?

Often, the parts left out of a film are of equal importance to the story as those which are included. The deleted footage is removed intentionally to tell a specific story or to enhance a particular perspective. The national media’s depiction of Detroit often takes one of two sides in its editing process: the first, a story of great sadness, decay and loss. The second, of the hopeful and optimistic who believe Detroit will become the next great artist haven, comparable to SoHo in the 1970s. Is it now the responsibility of the artists, designers, photographers, and journalists who call this city home to provide a counter for this so carefully edited tale of a shrinking city?

As a medium, photography and the ways in which it communicates to an audience have been scrutinized for decades. In the 1970s and 80s Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes both released revolutionary critiques of the medium for the time. Sontag believes that by nature, photography is an edited version of reality. In her essay In Plato’s Cave, Sontag compares the role of photography in shaping the public’s knowledge of a given topic or place, to that of shadows on a wall. In the allegory of Plato’s cave, Plato envisions a group of prisoners who live the entirety of their lives chained in one place. Their only understanding of the outside world exists in the shadows created on a wall in front of them. Over time the prisoners begin to assign meaning to the shadows based on their limited knowledge of the object casting the shadows true form. Sontag states that “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of truth.” By this philosophy, the majority of Americans, who will never have the opportunity to experience Detroit firsthand, will know the city only through photographs. Photographs they will assume to be depicting reality.

By no means do I intend to imply disapproval of artists and designers who use Detroit as their subject matter. On the contrary, I think that this conflict creates an overwhelming need for those who live here to show their view of the city and the range of places, people, and activities here.

One person who is doing precisely this is photographer and filmmaker Geoffrey George. I first encountered George’s work several years ago by a common means: conducting a Flickr search on “Detroit ruins.” What initially struck me about his photographs is his stunning ability to capture the array of people, architecture, and infrastructure that is Detroit. In his photographs, you see not just the beauty that exists in its decay, but in both its thriving people and businesses, and the ones often forgotten or left in limbo. His knowledge of and enthusiasm for the city are evident in the captions accompanying his photos. And he is not shy about sharing his enthusiasm.

When I met with George to discuss his work, he told me that an increasing number of people are contacting him to ask for recommendations of places to see when they visit Detroit. He often ends up showing them around himself. “The ruins serve as an introduction to the city for people on the internet, or in books,” George explained. “I think a lot of people like to look at images of Detroit online but they’re not necessarily willing to come here. And when they do make the leap to come here I think it’s important that they see other things than just ruins”.

The ruins of Detroit may serve as an introduction to the city, but they also serve as an introduction to George’s work. Many of his thousands of viewers find his photographs on Flickr the same way I did, by seeking out images of abandonment in Detroit. However, George’s perspective on the subject provides an interesting twist on that of the national media. “I don’t go into the ruins to exploit it and to make the city look bad. I think the ruins are an asset, in a way. They do contribute something to this city in a modern age. People are really interested in the subject matter and interested in the ruins of Detroit, like Michigan Central Station, in the same way that people are interested in the Acropolis in Athens or the Coliseum in Rome. It’s a sign of past civilizations that no longer functions the same way.”

Appreciating the ruins in their current state seems to be a shared perspective among local photographers. At a lecture put on by the Hamilton Anderson Association, Jim Griffioen, of Sweet Juniper, gave an enthralling hour-long talk based on the same perspective. Griffioen’s education in the classics provided many great examples of how foreign cultures have come to appreciate their historic ruins and integrate them into what are now modern cities. Additionally he discussed the way ruins have been preserved at one of southeastern Michigan’s greatest tourist destinations, Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, in contrast to the abandoned factory where the Model T was produced. Though both George and Griffioen are well aware Detroit does not need to be transformed in order to become a tourist destination, it already is one. The visitors attracted to this city are certainly not those targeted by the award winning Pure Michigan campaign, but rather people of like minds to themselves.

If you spend any more than a fleeting second on George’s Flickr page, you will find much more than photos of abandonment. And if you are fortunate enough to find George as your personal city guide, don’t expect the ruins to be the first thing you encounter. The first places George usually takes his visitors to are currently occupied buildings functioning as they were originally intended. “A lot of people don’t imagine Detroit as having a downtown, they just imagine it as a big sea of abandoned factories. I think it’s important for people to see that we have big impressive buildings here and not only do we have a skyline, but they’re gems. They are architectural gems.”

It’s understandable that the vast majority of people think of Detroit as deserted. Frequently, film depictions of Detroit are apocalyptic. Movies like The Island and Transformers, and television programs like the History Channel’s Life After People depict the city as completely vacant and barren. These images combined with narrative like “what will Detroit look like 40 years after people? We already know. Because of these haunting sites, its already happening,” make it difficult to imagine anyone actually living in Detroit.

Despite what the media often implies, people are behind the ruins and newer architecture. The one million plus residents who have left Detroit behind since the riots of the 1960s receive more attention in the national media than the nine hundred thousand who still reside here. Geoffery George observes, “…really first and foremost in the city are the people. Those are the elements that are more important to the people that live here, the people around them. Not necessarily the ruins.” He is currently in the process of trying to capture the wide range of people living in Detroit. “I want it to be comprehensive in a way, I want it to capture both street characters, homeless people, but also Larry Mongo of Cafe D’mongos or Dave Bing. I don’t care. A range of people, political figures, artists, people who work in the city, professors, biker guys who work a computer job during the day and then bike at night, musicians… A little more all encompassing. I think its like the ruins, the city is not just poor people on the street, its not just the homeless”.

One example George gives of the type of people he aims to capture is Barbara Sutton. “She is getting her PhD. She is 83 years old and travels, has a lot of energy for her age and appearance”. When I asked George how he conducted most of his research on the city, he said a great deal of it, and often the best information, comes from the people living in and around the area. He went on to discuss people like Sutton, who have lived in the city their entire lives. “They are disappearing quickly, unfortunately, but I think there’s a desire to want to capture that before those people disappear.”

One of results of the fast and easy exchange of information via the Internet is that anyone with a computer can create and share images on a global platform, reaching a broad audience that otherwise would never have seen them. Some of George’s photos on Flickr have been viewed tens of thousands of times. With the ability to evoke emotion, educate, and change perceptions, the medium of photography is a powerful force. I can only speak first hand in saying George’s photography has and continues to change the way I view Detroit. His photography has taught me so much about a city I spent years living in, unaware of the beauty that lay beyond my college campus. I can only begin to imagine the effect it has had on those who have never had the opportunity to visit firsthand.

George’s photos begin to fill in the gaps left by the national media. His photos of ruins go far beyond Michigan Central Station and the Packard Plant. His photos of the business district capture more than the single view from Canada, looking at the city from the outside. And his photos of people are not of one socioeconomic group. One person alone cannot single handedly mend the image the national media has created of Detroit. Perhaps as more and more local artists are recognized we will begin to see a shift in the portrayal of our city.

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I know that like a shadow on a cave wall, this post serves only as my edited account of an interview with a Detroit photographer. Writing about this interview was a long process of cutting, pasting, and deleting segments from my two-hour long conversation with George. For this reason, I urge all of you to view George’s work first hand. Additionally, like all my entries on Pixelgawker, it has been structurally and grammatically edited by my dear friend and editor Elizabeth Courtois.

Other local photographers, designers and projects:

Ryan Southen

Sweet Juniper

Snowsuit Effort

The Detroit Book

Detroit Unreal Estate’s Walk-In Portrait Studio

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Update: rogueHAA has a really interesting reflection on the above mentioned talk by Jim Griffioen read it here.

*This entry was originally posted on pixelgawker

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