Bruce Weber turns his camera on Detroit in DIA exhibition 

The glitter and the grit

Back in 2006, Detroiters spotted a wholly unexpected sight around the city: supermodel Kate Moss. She was in town with fashion photographer Bruce Weber, posing for a 54-page spread for W magazine called “Welcome to the Motor City.” The photo story featured Moss shot in various locations — from the Heidelberg Project to the Detroit Institute of Arts to Hamtramck Disneyland. It was a bold move, using Detroit’s gritty backdrop for Kate Moss’ celebrity sheen, and it caused quite a bit of buzz at the time. This was long before Detroit stories become standard fodder for the likes of The New York Times — Detroit had just hosted the Super Bowl, and people were beginning to talk about the idea of a cosmopolitan comeback.

Last year, Weber returned to Detroit, shooting model Carolyn Murphy for Shinola’s first photo campaign. Now, shots from both Detroit trips are featured in a new exhibition at the DIA, titled Bruce Weber — Detroit, which opened to the public last week. The exhibition features portraits of Detroit luminaries like Iggy Pop, Aretha Franklin, and Patti Smith alongside lesser-known Detroiters, creating a broad view of the city. 

“People keep asking me what my first impressions of the city were,” Weber says via email. “It’s too hard to put into words, as I was just getting to know the place. The best I can do is say it felt almost like meeting a new friend.” Weber has since grown fond of the city, telling fashion news website Fashionista, “What I love about Detroit is that I just feel so good walking down the street, and I think, ‘I should get a house here.’ I want to keep coming back.”

Now based in New York City, Weber was born in Greensburg, Penn., where he says he had a quiet upbringing. Weber cites his poor athletic abilities as the reason he got into art. “I wasn’t very good at sports in school, so my parents took me to a watercolor painting class when I was young,” he says. “I liked it a lot — my hands got all messed up and colored in paint, which made me feel a little punk rock.” His love for photography was nurtured by his father, who was big on filming his family and shooting family photos. Weber got his start at the SoHo Weekly News, shooting a controversial spread of underwear-clad men that established his reputation for his edgy photographs, often shot in black-and-white.

Weber still shoots with film, and while he says he appreciates digital photography, he believes equipment isn’t the most important thing for photographers. “When I first started taking photos, all of my friends were getting fancy cameras with big lenses. I had a simple Nikon with a normal lens that my parents had gotten for me,” he says. He asked his older photographer friend, Otto Fenn, for advice on equipment. “He told me, ‘It’s not about equipment, it’s about what’s in your head and soul,’” Weber says. “I think his advice holds true even to this day.”

Weber says he likes to shoot with loose expectations. “I prefer to let the spirit of the place I’m in and the people I meet there lead me to something unexpected,” he says. “I like to approach photography and filmmaking like an adventure story and allow for surprises and discoveries along the way.” Many of the subjects of the Shinola campaign wound up being people who worked at Shinola. “It just happens — you can never storyboard an experience,” he says. “I try to be open to all kinds of circumstances.”

The DIA exhibition also came about spontaneously, when Weber and his wife were having lunch with Anna Wintour, artistic director of Condé Nast, W’s publisher. “I told her about some of the amazing people I had met and experiences I had here in Detroit,” Weber says. Wintour said that, only an hour before, some people at Condé Nast were spitballing the idea of doing a project in Detroit; Weber suggested an exhibition and the plan was made right on the spot. Condé Nast wound up underwriting much of the exhibition’s costs.

Asked for an example of his photographic approach in Detroit, Weber says he stopped in at Upper Cuts barbershop because he needed a shave — he wasn’t even planning on shooting. “I got excited and started taking pictures inside because the interior is so incredible,” he says. “I ran out of time, so I remained unshaven. But I got the picture!” 

Detroit — Bruce Weber runs until Sunday, Sept. 7, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org. Free with museum admission. Weber’s photos are also included in a coffee table book, Detroit Has Been Good to Me, available at the DIA.

View 15 images from Detroit — Bruce Weber here.

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