Arnold Nursing Home, 7 Mile Road, 2009.

The Aurora, Brush Park neighborhood, 2008.

Birches growing in decayed books, Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, 2009.

Chemistry lab, former Cass Technical High School building, 2009.

Abandoned videoconferencing room, Chase Tower, Financial District, 2008.

Cooper Elementary School, East Side, 2008.

National Time clock, former Cass Technical High School building, 2009.

Rolling hall, Ford Motor Company, River Rouge Complex, Dearborn, 2008.

Shelter, Engine Works, Detroit Dry Dock Company Complex, Rivertown neighborhood, 2008.

Waiting room with snowdrift, Michigan Central Station, 2008.

House on Walden Street, East Side, 2008.

East Palmer Avenue towards Chene Street, a 95 degree day, Detroit, 1995.

“Detroit Is No Dry Bones,” Ruth Chapel AME Church, East Kirby Street at Baldwin Street, Detroit, 2012.

Former Michigan Central Station, View from Dalzelle Street at 15th Street, Detroit, 2010.

Woodward Avenue at Sibley Street, Detroit, 2009.

Pilgrim Church, Grand River Avenue at Trumbull Street, Detroit, 2011.

Former Highland Park State Bank (Wood Six Twin Adult Theater), 16549 Woodward Avenue, Highland Park, 1993.

Hutchins Cole’s Garden, Rosa Parks Boulevard, Detroit, 1987.

Downtown Detroit, View from Sibley Street down Park Avenue, Detroit, 1991.

Former Oklahoma Gas Station, Livernois Avenue at Joy Road, Detroit, 1996.

Willie’s Garage, 2520 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, 1991.

Nicky D’s Coney Island, Warren Avenue West at Livernois Avenue, Detroit, 2011.

2012-10-01

Co.Exist

Gorgeous Photographs Show Contrasting Views Of Detroit's Present—And Future

Two photo projects—by photographers Andrew Moore and Camilo José Vergara—show the urban ruin of the Detroit we all imagine, but also the work spirit of reinvention of the people who actually live there.

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."

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7 Comments

  • Scott Sullivan

    OK, I have an Interesting Question. Who can share with me a Success story about Detroit, let's say within the last 2 years?  Something it built? Something it creates, etc???  list them off, because I'm interested to see them, and photograph them.....

  • Lynn_Sepp

    While the images discussed here are very interesting or even appealing to many people (obviously since it has become some sort of fad to photograph urban decay), it is, I think, merely a reaction similar to what brings large audiences to the nightly local news. As they say (or so I've heard) in the business, "If it bleeds, it leads". Everyone loves to see a train wreck.
    This might be seen as something very negative, having the city of Detroit photographed just for people to gawk at, and rightfully so, but there is a silver lining. Your average person is going to be scared away from the city when shown these images, but at the same time the images can attract and bring in optimistic, creative, innovative and overall more desirable people full of ideas. They will bring their ideas to Detroit and start something completely different from any other big city in America, and we have already begun to see this happen.
    Detroit is has been abandoned by its previous residents, leaving a clean slate for people to start living differently. Just like the article says, people have found opportunity in it's ruins. A ridiculous amount of city blocks have been cleared of old, dilapidated houses and buildings, making way for urban farming, a forward-thinking movement providing fresh locally grown food to city dwellers. Detroit is a trail-blazer in this area. We have also seen old factories and office buildings being re-made into attractive new things such as lofts, bringing in a youthful crowd, Groups of artists have even bought old buildings for themselves to work in for dirt-cheap. For example, the Power House Project purchased an old house in Detroit, and plan to use it as a place to make art, while powering it completely off the grid.
    Detroit is viewed by most as a dead, hopeless place, but to some it is being looked at as the beginning of new and wonderful ideas.

  • CJohn

    How many more depressing photo spreads of Detroit do we need?  There's got to be several dozen book, online and other published spreads.  Although a cottage industry of photographing Detroit seems to have emerged from this ruined city, so maybe this is part of it's renewal?  Charging photographers to capture images of it's rotting urban carcass?

  • Matthew

    Long Live Detroit! 

    The pride that exists in a city that is continually portrayed in photos like these is astonishing. No matter how many times its residents have been kicked in the head by social and governmental changes, there is still an overwhelming sense of pride and opportunity. It's on its way back, I've seen the progress over the last 8 years (granted, from the vantage point of the most gentrified area, midtown) but the changes are happening faster and faster. My only hope is that this energy will be sustained and we can begin to focus efforts on the neighborhoods as well. With 70,000 homes still left vacant for dead, there is a long way to go on our East and West sides but with hope and ingenuity, we'll get there.

  • Eugene Blackman

    You got that gorgeous i mean the pictures are good quality but i find it depressing and i hope and pray that Detroit can come back i really do.