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Photography & media

A city on its knees – ruins and hope in Detroit

— April 2012

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Julia Reyes Taubman, Detroit East Side

Detroit: 138 Square Miles

By Julia Reyes Taubman

 ‘Ruin porn’ is the term that is so aptly applied to photographs of abandoned, crumbling buildings in Detroit – a city whose name needs no further qualifier when it comes to symbolizing American brute strength brought to its knees. Focused on the inanimate, devoid of any signs of life, such pictures convey an operatic irony and urge to submit to dissolution. The premier examples of this genre are photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Gathered into a book and published as The Ruins of Detroit, they have been available for some time on the Internet, as pictures that fetishize the Gothic decay of the so-called Arsenal of Democracy (if your touchstone is the Second World War), the Motor City (if you’re a car buff) or, simply, Motown (if classic rhythm and blues is your secret vice).

Yet the reality is much less seductive, far messier and, for that, all the more engaging.

Detroit: 138 Square Miles begins to suggest this complexity although, realistically, it can’t fully communicate the bizarre mix of dynamism and entropy, goodwill and acrimony, despair and optimism that operates within and without the city limits. In the end, it is a photographic essay that conveys the open-minded perspective of the person who took the pictures.

That would be Julia Reyes Taubman, a relative newcomer to the city, who has the money to isolate herself from Detroit’s daily ups and downs, and to make some bits of hope happen. Taubman is an East Coast art historian and photographer who moved to the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills upon marrying real estate mogul Robert Taubman. Not surprisingly, she became an arts patron and was involved in founding the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit.

Atypically, however, Taubman became emotionally involved with the city. Over the course of seven years, she recorded aspects of it in about 35,000 photographs. For purposes of publication, those numbers have been edited to about 400. Her book contains images of order and grace in, for example, an altar-like arrangement of bookcases and artworks at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, and in a panel from Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Conversely, David MacKenzie High School is shown, boarded up, but still exuding such vital beauty that the reader wants to call out for its rescue. Pictures of people, identified and unidentified, in churches, bars and restaurants around town confront one with a stubborn and undeniably human presence.

Ultimately, this mix of images and the receptions they stimulate is what sets Taubman’s book apart from compilations of ruin porn. She reminds readers of the people who were employed by and served by the derelict factories and schools shown herein, who live in the houses that remain and in the houses that used to occupy what now are vacant lots. Yet, even these compassionately framed photographs freeze their subjects in time and isolate them from narrative context: it is simply the nature of the medium.

For example, a picture of Detroit Central Station, a prime subject of ruin porn, cannot tell the tale of its ownership by a Detroit billionaire who might swap its chances of survival for concessions on other business deals. Pictures don’t tell the story of structures such as the Stroh brewery, abandoned and demolished by its owners before it became a ruin and, admittedly, before Taubman was able to document it. Even textual information provided in back-of-the-book captions is unable to indicate the current status or impending fate of buildings such as the McGregor Library in Highland Park. Shuttered in 2002, the library is an extraordinary example of beaux-arts architecture. What is its fate? Will it be rehabilitated and reopened for the sake of those who need it? Or will it be lost as a symbolic and practical resource?

With any luck, this exquisitely packaged collection of images might inspire some real action and positive answers. It might spark philanthropy and investment. Perhaps artists will see it and move to Detroit, where they can find the sort of inexpensive spaces that Brooklyn used to offer. Or it might stir local pride, assail apathy and arouse curiosity. There’s only so much a book of pictures can do, however. This one does its part. The rest is up to those who look inside the covers.

Detroit: 138 Square Miles by Julia Reyes Taubman is published by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit and DAP / Distributed Art Publishers, 2011. 487 pp.,c. 400 colour illus.ISBN 978-0-982-3896-0-7


Janet Stiles Tyson
Spring Lake, Michigan, USA
Independent art historian

Media credit: Photo: Julia Reyes Taubman

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