Much of the very particular photography that has come out of Detroit since the start of the recession has been criticized as “ruin porn,” a kind of red meat served up to outsiders who look on the Motor City more as a cautionary tale than an actual place where people still live. There is, to be honest, something grossly alluring about the sight of buildings in decay and neighborhoods with no residents. In some of Andrew Moore’s well-known photos, it looks as if people in Detroit walked out of their offices, schools, and factories in mid-activity, never to return again. The half-open drawers and desks they left behind suggest that everyone was in a terrible rush to abandon this place.
This picture, though, of a hollowed out city is not entirely accurate, especially not five years on from the start of the recession. Photographer Camilo José Vergara offers a different view of Detroit as a city reinventing itself out of those ruins. The National Building Museum in Washington has just opened side-by-side exhibitions of Moore’s photos paired with Vergara’s. But while Moore has captured large-format iconic images from the city’s worst years in 2008 and 2009, Vergara tells of an evolving story several decades in the making, which may yet end on a high note. His exhibition is named after a sign he found painted onto the brick exterior of a local church: "Detroit Is No Dry Bones."
Vergara visited the city for the first time in 1968, in the wake of urban riots there. “They had a very strong sense,” he says, narrating his work, “that this was going to be a temporary thing. Give it a year, and things would be back to the way they were.”
That prophecy, of course, did not play out. And Vergara would return to Detroit repeatedly from the late '80s through the present capturing the transformation the city undertook instead. He photographed—as Moore and others have—the abandoned former Michigan Central Station, what Vergara describes as America’s Parthenon, the most famous ruin in the country. But over time, that abandoned landmark received some odd touchups, a row of hedges out front, some asbestos removal inside. "Detroit becomes a city of contradictions," Vergara says, marveling at one image of a billboard for a local Norman Rockwell exhibit towering over a distinctly non-Rockwellian streetscape.
Detroit doesn’t simply decay with time. It wrestles with decay by putting up new skyscrapers and tearing down others. Fresh strips of sidewalk were paved in front of vacant lots. Some beautiful old mansions were renovated but never quite finished. When Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, the city even tried to string festive lights on abandoned office buildings. “To me,” Vergara says, “the whole story got more and more interesting as time passed, because it got more complicated.”
He photographed several locations in time series, showing that complex change—sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. These series, some of which span a decade or more, stand in contrast to Moore’s images, which appear more like gorgeous landscape paintings from the 19th century. While Moore has been criticized for his formal shots of the city’s misfortune (one image of the ransacked Cass Technical High School fails to show the school’s sparkling new replacement just beyond the frame), Vergara has the benefit of carrying through his narrative to the present day.
For many young outsiders and Detroit’s survivors, the city’s destruction ultimately creates opportunity. Today it has cheap homes for sale, vacant lots to farm, blank walls to reclaim with art. “There is this freedom,” Vergara says, and the city has gained a kind of new life on the Internet with all of these tales of its urban reinvention. “There are possibilities that are not around anywhere else."
"Ruin porn," by contrast, suggests no such positive future beyond nature’s reclaiming of man-made places. Moore’s photos are still stunning as works of art, and viewers can debate if that divisive term fairly applies to them. But as a record of the full story of the city, Vergara’s photos feel more honest. “The story is more complicated," he says. "The story of destruction and ruin goes together with the story of rebirth and utopia."