I am an American photographer, currently living in the United States. I find it hard to classify myself. We can take photography in so many different directions these days. I like to wander through all kinds of different...
Focus:Photographer, Photojournalist, Journalist
Skills:Infrared Photography, Color Correction, Adobe Photoshop, Coding CSS, Web Design, Photojournalism, Web Development
The view from the Fisher building, an old art deco structure, intact despite the widespread devastation for miles all around it. Out the window is a main road to downtown, which is undergoing serious rebuilding efforts. The Fisher offers the false comfort of being wrapped up all comfy and warm inside a history that no longer exists. I had no plans to do a photo essay when I came to Detroit. I had five days to kill, and hoped to get a lot of work done on an important project with a fast approaching due date (like that was ever going to happen). But the landscape was just too interesting, and people told me stories, interesting stories, and I soon found a a few stories of my own.
Going to Detroit, I knew intellectually that there were a lot of abandoned and burned out houses, but I was totally unprepared for the extent of the destruction. Large swathes of the city look like photos of bombed out Germany near the end of World War II, albeit with some pretty cool graffiti. It's not one or two, or ten or twenty, neighborhoods – it's hundreds, if not thousands. Block after decimated block with a few crumbling ruins, a couple piles of ashes, and a bunch of empty lots; with maybe an occupied house or business or two, though often not. It's hard to comprehend that this could happen to an American city, much less that it actually has. On a technical note, I hate using long lenses and taking photos that are merely pictures of things, yet I do both with this photo, and put it up near the front of the essay. See the abandoned house juxtaposed against the abandoned factory? What could that possibly say?
On the positive side, all those abandoned buildings make Detroit a tagger's paradise. There's a lot of great art in and on those ruins. In this photo, a kid with a backpack full of spray paint enters a crumbling factory, just behind a group of friends. Much as I lied to myself about wanting to stay in and ace my paying work, it was inevitable that I would get out and explore the devastation. Of course I couldn't just photograph the taggers going into the ruins. I had to follow them into the ruins. I used to go spelunking a lot. I'm too old and creaky for that now, but urban spelunking through Detroit's ruins provides similar feelings of excitement and awe. Is that sick? Excitement and awe exploring a disaster that harmed so many people? Or does it matter any more, as the damage is done. Can we just live in the here and now, like someone with Alzheimers? What was I saying?
Right. There's a lot of great graffiti among all the devastation. Hopefully, some of it will be preserved, a record will be made of most of it, and the best will be stolen and sold to museums for big money, which will go to the artists, not the thieves that pried their work off the walls. Like, as if... Anyway, although the essay is its own story, mostly unrelated to how I passed my time in Detroit, all the photos are drawn from me just being me. I would have gone all these places, done all these things, even if I'd never pressed a shutter. I didn't care about taking photos when I began exploring, but that's what I do, so that's what I did. You know how it is. Trippers got to be trippin.
The thing about exploring devastated neighborhoods and crumbling buildings is that it's very possible to stumble in on violent criminals engaged in illegal activities. I'm pretty sure this crack house is run by the Crips. I did a little work and research on Crip graffiti in Brooklyn, so I have reason to believe this house was tagged with instructions for when to come here and buy drugs. So in this case, I didn't exactly stumble into it, but rather approached it very carefully. Couldn't always do that, though. Most of the time, there weren't big signs announcing criminal activities. Or more likely, the signs were in gang graffiti I didn't know how to read. But there were just so many abandoned and crumbling houses. The odds against bumbling into one that was actually a drug den, or otherwise dangerous, were fairly slim.
I'd never been to Detroit, and didn't plan ahead, so I ended up just driving into town, going to a bar, and figuring out some kind of plan, which is how I usually travel. I ended up in a great old house with big rooms and lots of history. Getting to know that old house, and the history of the family that had lived in it for 50 years, made it even more sad to see all those similar, once-very-nice, houses collapsed or burned all across the city. It provided context for thinking about all the lives that were destroyed in the widespread urban holocaust that nearly decimated Detroit.
In this photo, a snowstorm approaches a decimated neighborhood. You can see a burned out house across the empty lot in the foreground, a burned business on the left and two other abandoned businesses. I stopped to take picture of the tree that is black and charred on one side, white on the other. This is probably less than a mile from downtown, and it's the norm for miles and miles around, far from unusual. You really have to see the devastation in Detroit to believe it. No one picture can begin to tell the story.
Medical marijuana is legal and easy to get in Michigan. Just about everyone I spoke with said it was mainly for people who just wanted to get high. Looking through the dispensary menus seems to bear that out. It's rare to see a strain that's low in THC and high in cannabidiol. The owner of one dispensary said the breakdown was about 60/40 in favor of recreational users, but I keep in mind that the dispensary owners have a financial interest in the business being taken seriously as medicinal. My guess would be upwards of 90/10 (further research is needed). Either cracking down on recreational card holders, or legalizing it entirely would damage or destroy their businesses.
Given the widespread destruction, I was a little surprised every time a local commented on how much better things are now than they were a few years ago. The downtown area is apparently being re-developed and the relatively cheap living is attracting the young and safely adventurous. I met a successful-looking young couple from the Bay Area who were apartment hunting after landing jobs in Detroit. I would guess they were some kind of web developers and/or art directors. That's a good thing, as I see it. People complain about what they call hipsters, but as far as I can tell, what they call a hipster is just a young person with an education and a job who they wish would get the fuck off of their lawn.
Of course the way I see it is far from relevant to the great majority of Detroit's population. I heard tales that many longtime residents have a great deal of resentment for these successful newcomers, and that the resentment is growing. A similar migration to Detroit happened in the past, however then it was more young, hip, and ambitious African Americans moving in for good-paying blue collar jobs in the auto industry. So many of those nice old burned out houses, and even the mansions, were the dream homes of that generation of immigrants. I also heard tales that many longtime residents who aren't doing so well economically are hostile towards other longtime residents who are doing well, particularly in the African American community, which is something like 70 percent of the population. Young white people, I'm told, are likely to get a pass, but for young African-Americans, that kind of class-based resentment can be deadly.
Detroit, of course, is famous for music, and I got to experience some of its best. I saw the old Motown studio and watched a never-ending parade of people take selfies out front. I saw a sign for 8 Mile while out riding around. I stopped to piss on the grave where Ted Nugent's brain is buried. And I saw Iggy Stooge, seen here next to a portrait by Andreas Neumann. Iggy is king of Detroit, though I got the impression he moved on, probably a long time ago.
This photo shows part of the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson's installation "Woman in E" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, a very nice little space, staffed by friendly young hip people. Usually, when I go to a new city, I hit the museums and galleries, but I just stopped in that one by happenstance. I was walking by on my way to somewhere else and decided to go in and check out the gift shop, in hope of getting a cool presents for my family. Otherwise, with all the great art sprayed throughout the wastelands, I wan't that interested in seeing officially approved stuff in evenly lighted galleries and museums. The light in the ruins was uneven, but when it was great it was transcendental.
"...the production of beauty in a world of suffering, and from your own suffering, is the closest thing to a higher calling that an artist has, the closest thing to the religious experience that art has to offer." --Richard Brody Or is it just exploitation of other people's suffering? I always have a hard time with that question.
I've always liked cemeteries and often check them out when I travel. Here, where Ted Nugget's brain is buried, I noticed that a lot of people had died young. I know there were some terrible years in Detroit, and it's still very bad for the great majority of the population. In no way do I mean to minimize that with this little story.
But again, I love the light, and color, and art in many of these places. In this crack den, there were quite a few used condoms by scuzzy mattresses, along with the ubiquitous spent lighters, so maybe ruin porn is a bit more apropos in this example.
The crumbling building in the background is the old Packard plant. It's way bigger than what you see here: probably three or four avenue blocks long, all as bad as this or worse. See how I've photographed it. It's like a tombstone for the auto industry in Detroit, if not the city itself. Get it? Do you get it? Really clever, huh? Seriously, just shoot me. But yea, even though it was an easy metaphor, it sure was a pain in the ass digging up that coffin to get the shot.
Although most of my published work is urban stuff, I spend a lot of time hiking and taking pictures in nature and that's where I honed the techniques I bring to city photography. Photography has always been like meditation for me. The mindfulness required to find and photograph a mushroom is no different than the mindfulness required to find and photograph graffiti in a crack house. You always have to watch your step while paying great attention to the light. There are always holes you might fall through. And there may be lions, or at least snakes. The element of human danger can be similar. City or country, I trespass a lot. In the country, there are plenty of gun nuts out in them thar hills just looking to shoot some fancy city dude with a camera. And there are meth labs out on the farm or in that rural cabin with armed, hallucinating yahoos who have been awake for a week. Often, I worry more about them than the big city crackheads, who are typically much more rational.
Wherein I parachute into Detroit for a few days and slap together a photo essay. A hit-and-run, so to speak.
The best way to view the story is to put on Iggy Pop's, "Sunday" from his new release. That's what I listened to while doing the editing. I recommend clicking throught the essay at least fifteen or twenty times while listening to the song over and over again. Then, slog through it one last time reading the captions. Iggy, if no one else, will thank you.