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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.


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


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


Detroit is the New Detroit

Images from 100 Abandoned Houses

A recent panel discussion consisting of local artists and educators ranging from an architect to a museum director was held at the MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). Its title, “Is Detroit the New Berlin?” spoke directly to the constant comparison of Detroit to other cities, and to its reinvention. Throughout the conversation a given speaker would name a distant city and attempt to discuss that particular places conflicts in relation to Detroit. Almost immediately after making such a statement though it became evident to the audience as well as to the speaker that the particular issue they were speaking of and the solution that place found was not applicable to Detroit.

Image from 100 Abandoned Houses

Opposite terms are ‘born together.’ To have or learn one is to have or learn the other. You cannot have mastered water unless you also know what is not water.

from A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought by Chad Hansen

It is human nature to compare and contrast in order to understand the world. We juxtapose to communicate ideas, to describe an object, person, or place clearly.

Perhaps this is why people are so eager to draw comparisons between Detroit and other great, failed industrial cities. Perhaps this is why people like to discuss Detroit in terms of what it was and is no longer. But a question still remains: do these comparisons help or hinder the creation of a new model for Detroit?

While it is important to learn from the past struggles and work of people elsewhere, Detroit is none of the cities to which it is likened. Detroit in 2009 is not the city that it was in 1940. Nor is it Berlin, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Moscow, Manchester, or Liverpool. Detroit exists in a unique time and a place, with unprecedented conflicts and hardships. In order for Detroit to reach a point of stability, a new model for commerce, industry, and urban living must come into play.


Like the economic infrastructure of Detroit, the infrastructures of many American companies are changing drastically due to the current recession. Some large, failing corporations have been swallowed by former competitors, while others have been forced to downsize. And in another sense, downsizing is an idea with which Detroit residents have become a bit too familiar. The city has been “downsizing” its population for the past forty years. Once home to two million, the city looks and functions much differently at 800,000 residents.

Similar to shifts in most industries, the former model for a successful design company is evolving. Jobs once accomplished by many are now completed by a single individual with a computer and the Adobe Creative Suite. And therefore the design world, like the rest of Detroit, is shrinking. As larger advertising agencies lay off two to three hundred employees at a time, many designers are left unemployed with no prospects.

Detroit has never been a city for chain restaurants and stores. A place housing a mere five Starbucks within its bounds allows small businesses to establish themselves and thrive, because they do not have to compete with larger corporate giants. It only makes sense that its design firms follow suit. And many of these newly unemployed designers are striking out on their own through freelance, some with the hopes that it could one day turn into a small studio of their own. Though Detroit may not be known on a national level for the number of small design studios that call this city home, we are here.

While researching for Pixelgawker I am continually surprised at the number of local studios I stumble across that I had never heard of before. The sprawling nature of Detroit combined with harsh competition for design business from the Big Three, the largest clients for many local design firms and advertising agencies in Detroit, make it difficult for designers to connect with one another. While there are many studios and organizations doing interesting work, the conflict lies in that they are all happening as isolated conversations.


Rather than being a place you can understand by comparing it to a known post-industrial city, Detroit’s condition is a new concept to comprehend; it is what a great American city looks like when the people leave. It is only now that the same looming threat of industrial and economic disaster has been imposed on other parts of the United States that the rest of the country is paying attention. Over the past few months, amidst the constant headlines announcing drastic changes in the American automotive industry, I have noticed that the city of Detroit has garnered a lot of nationwide attention. Projects like The Powerhouse Project, The Detroit Unreal Estate Agency, 100 Abandoned Houses, and Time Magazine’s article “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline” are reaching tens of thousands foreign eyes — and people like to root for the underdog.

A comment that stayed with me, from the panel discussion at the MOCAD offered the possibility of considering vacancy as a positive, rather than negative, attribute. I constantly have to remind myself to focus not on what this city lacks but rather on what it has to offer. It’s not over developed — there is a vast amount of empty space. The countless small, independently owned businesses and unique organizations that have arisen from grass roots efforts. Often, the best artistic inspiration comes from heartbreak, and Detroit is an incredible muse. It is a fact validated in the musicians, artists, designers, and people it produces. Perhaps as Detroit struggles to find a new model for design, and for itself, the rest of the world will listen.

*This entry was originally posted on pixelgawker

Scotten Street

The sheer scale of the grandiose homes and elegance of their architecture spoke of immense wealth and style. Now dilapidated and crumbling, many bore large holes the size of a car through their exterior walls. Others it was apparent were the scene of a fire some five, ten, forty years prior. All that is left now are charred skeletons and blackened remains of their former selves. I felt like a foreign tourist exploring a new world, pointing and gawking. “Look at that house, no look at that house”. It was strange when we finally crossed eight mile back into Ferndale, to my neighborhood. It suddenly felt so different knowing what was just on the other side of the street. I nearly did not recognize it. I continued to point at houses, but now the pointing was accompanied with “That’s where Jessica lives” or “This is my old street” and it felt void of any real meaning or significance.

Putting the D in DIY: Reflections on an interview with Handmade Detroit

Handmade Detroit

In the late 19th Century the world was changing rapidly. Machines were replacing a workforce once powered by men and women. As mass-produced items became more readily available the craft behind the arts of furniture making, home building, and textile design began to disappear from every day knowledge thanks to the convenience and prevalence of the machine. In response to this major shift toward automation was born the Arts and Crafts Movement (1880-1910). The artists behind the Arts and Crafts Movement hand-crafted work in rebellion against the soullessness of industrial age products and processes.

History has a tendency to repeat itself. The DIY movement can be traced to the punk movement of the late 1970’s, but the rise in popularity of the Internet propelled the DIY acronym into its status as a household term. As the 1990s saw unprecedented growth in new technology, computers became affordable to most of middle-class America, and the Internet became accessible from schools, businesses, and homes. Now, in ways reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th Century, the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement in part functions as a reminder of the importance and beauty of handcrafted items in a time when everything else is going digital.

DIY products are still predominately created by hand, but unlike the Arts and Crafts movement, in the digital age DIY artists often employ the Internet as marketing tool. Websites like Etsy and WordPress are excellent platforms for DIY artists to share their goods. Tools like Paypal make online purchasing an easy process, so the average seller is able, in true DIY fashion, to do it them selves.

The Internet is where Handmade Detroit, a local DIY collective, began in the form of a Myspace page. Stephanie Tardy, one of the founding members of Handmade Detroit explains, “Handmade Detroit was kind of a snowball. It was started as a MySpace profile to promote a few shows Carey, Lish and I were doing at the time. It had a simple ‘About me’ which reflected our feelings that other major cities were already way ahead in terms of getting hip to the handmade movement. One of our slogans at the beginning was ‘In the handmade revolution, Detroit will not be left behind.’” 

Tardy and the other members of Handmade Detroit (Carey Gustafson, Amy Cronkite, Bethany Nixon, and Lish Dorset) made certain Detroit was not left behind. As a group they soon began to plan and organize a large-scale DIY craft fair, the Detroit Urban Craft Fair (DUCF).  

Planning Michigan’s first DIY craft fair was no easy feat. “When planning the first DUCF, defining indie craft to an audience that had never seen it was a huge obstacle,” says Tardy. The hard work of the five organized members, who all had previous experience running their own businesses, is evident in Handmade Detroit’s continued growth and popularity. 

“The Detroit Urban Craft Fair was such a great confirmation that the city was hungry for all of what Michigan’s independent artists and crafters were doing,” Explained Nixon. The DUCF now happens every November. The 2008 fair at the Fillmore in Detroit featured over fifty vendors. In addition to the DUCF, Handmade Detroit also produces the Craft Revival each spring. 

The members of Handmade Detroit are busy planning physical events, but they have not left behind their origins on the web — in fact they have expanded their online presence. They recently launched a new website featuring “craftervidz,” video tutorials on featured craft projects. The website also features an event calendar for Handmade Detroit and other local DIY projects, and a Craft Map highlighting local craft stores, fabric and fiber stores, places to buy handmade items and “Other rad places to get your DIY on.” 

The DIY movement could not have found a better home than it has in Detroit. As Nixon explains, “Detroit has always been a DIY city in other ways – in building new concepts in the automotive industry, new ideas in music, and the drive for the residents to improve their homes and communities themselves.” Tardy similary expressed that  “Detroiters have a very personal connection to people who have made things with their hands for years — line workers use their hands, too. Being a maker in Detroit is tying yourself to this history. But at the same time, and especially for handmade artists, it’s also about defining your work against this history — and seeing a newly defined creative future for the city”. 

I encourage you to meet the wonderful and inspiring ladies behind Handmade Detroit in person this Saturday, April 18 at the Craft Revival fair at the Magic Stick.

Handmade Detroit Ladies

For more on Handmade Detroit please visit their website or follow them on twitter.

The members of Handmade Detroit are:

Stephanie Tardy
The Phantom Limb 

Bethany Nixon
Reware Vintage 

Carey Gustafson
DIY Craft Fair music director 

Amy Cronkite
Make-Out Goods
Loop Social Circle 

Lish Dorset
My Vintage Kitschen 

*This entry was originally posted on pixelgawker