Sal Rodriguez goes from the sidelines to the red carpet 

Things fall into place for Detroit photog

Start following Detroit’s street art scene, and it isn’t long before you’re pointed to Salvador Rodriguez. Born and raised in Detroit (now a St. Clair Shores resident), Rodriguez’s thorough documentation of Detroit’s recent street art boom makes him something of a historian on the matter. And he’s making a name as a photographer in his own right, though he sort of stumbled onto the path. 

He started off studying graphic design, apprenticing under local poster artist Mark Arminksi, learning the ropes by helping Arminksi print posters for Detroit band the Dirtbombs, and for fine artist Glenn Barr before finally pursuing a degree in it. “I really thought that graphic design was going to be the thing for me,” he says. “Then I realized how it was a tough place to get a job, especially in Detroit.” Meanwhile, Rodriguez was shooting photos as a hobby. 

Rodriguez landed an internship at TV station WDIV, “just doing random intern stuff,” he says, but continued taking pictures for himself. One day boss Mike Katona saw some of the photos he took (“they happened to be of the Packard Plant, of course — the beginner course of [urban exploring],” Rodriguez says sheepishly), and Katona asked if he would be interested in covering Detroit architecture as part of a recurring feature. “He just wanted me to cover whatever I could, whether it was a new building or a redeveloped building, anything was going on in that had to architecture in Detroit,” Rodriguez says. “Plus, nobody else at the station wanted to go inside vacant buildings.”

Rodriguez did that for a year before ditching screenprinting entirely. Katona gave Rodriguez his own section on the WDIV website, Detroit In Focus, which Rodriguez has curated for three years. “Working at [WDIV] helped me get in a lot of doors,” Rodriguez says, and he began shooting concerts, parades, and other events around town. He became the resident photographer for art gallery 323East — which at that time was making the transition from a scrappy little Royal Oak art gallery to a place of international clout. “It was within that first year that everything kind of exploded,” he says.

From there, Rodriguez got in with many of the international street artists 323East was bringing in to Detroit, and when 323East started helping to bring artists into town for the Detroit Beautification Project, Rodriguez was there to document it from the start. “What other network could you be in if you wanted to get in with all these international artists than to know these guys?” he says. “These are the guys who are bringing them to Detroit.”

At the same time, Rodriguez entered a contest called Project Imagination that was launched by Ron Howard and Canon, entering a black-and-white photo of his daughter at John K. King Used & Rare Books. The contest had a series of guest directors shoot short films based on the winning photographs, and fashion designer and actress Georgiana Chapman selected Rodriguez’s photo to base her film on. Rodriguez and his family were invited to New York to attend the premiere. “It was bigger than what I expected. It was so huge,” Rodriguez says. “We got to meet Ron Howard, and it was this huge party afterward.”

Not bad for just a couple of years after starting out. “There’s a lot of other photographers in Detroit who are pretty entrenched in the street art scene,” Rodriguez says. “I’m just trying to get out from under their shadow and make a name for myself.” 

For more of Rodriguez's work, check out photo313.com.

More by Lee DeVito

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