An anonymous graffiti writer poses a pointed question (as anonymous graffiti writers often do), scrawling "WHO IS Detroit" underneath a giant question mark. Photographed by Tom Stoye on a quiet, overcast day, the question could refer to any number of things — confronting Detroit's population loss, perhaps, or merely acknowledging the multiple groups that make up Detroit, or maybe even addressing the media's role in accurately portraying the city.
It's a question that curator Nadja Rottner broadly explores in a new exhibition called CardioVista: Detroit Street Photography. An assistant professor of art history at U-M Dearborn, Rottner compiled visual essays by four metro Detroit photographers as part of her museum studies seminar class. "I was so disenchanted by this ongoing narrative of either 'boom' or 'bust' — those large, grand, historical narratives that have been especially prevalent in discussions of what has been going on in Detroit," Rottner says. "I tried to sort of assess what life is really like on the streets and how to reflect a more detailed understanding of what is going on."
The photo essays range considerably, from objective documentation to more artistic, staged narratives. Rottner points out that no one thread necessarily ties each photo essay together, but notes that three of the four artists — Carlos Diaz, Bruce Harkness, and Tom Stoye — were all students of Bill Rauhauser's, a photographer who has had his eye on the Motor City since the 1940s.
Photog Bruce Harkness presents two black-and-white photo essays on the Cass Corridor and Poletown. His shots of the Cass Corridor, near his alma maters CCS and Wayne State University, date back to the 1970s and '80s. His photo essay on Poletown was shot between February and December in 1981, as the Detroit neighborhood was demolished for a new General Motors plant. Harkness' shots show everyday life going on in the neighborhood's final days.
Carlos Diaz, a third-generation Mexican-American from Pontiac, presents a variety of different photo essays. Beyond Borders: Southwest Detroit Homes & Immigrants takes a look at the inhabitants of Detroit's predominantly Mexican neighborhoods in 2010, depicting landscapes that are colorful and meticulously decorated with flags, Catholic imagery, and other traces of Mexican heritage. The Rouge: The Legacy of Detroit & the Autoworker, shot at Ford's Rouge Plant between 2012 and 2014, could very well be an update to Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Both series are lively and kinetic, even when no humans are shown — a testament to the impact of people on their environments. A third series dating back to the 1980s, titled Unknown Landmarks, shows black-and-white shots of various monuments and other architecture with no signs of humans around. They also show the impact of humans on the environment, but often show how nature eventually reclaims these monuments.
Tom Stoye, originally from Detroit's west side but later relocated to the suburbs, offers two very different photo essays. The Graffiti Writers presents a look at the fleeting, fast-paced underground world of street art, made up of black-and-white shots between 2003 and 2010 of the disguised artists in the act. How Green Is My Valley, meanwhile, isn't "ruin porn" so much as it's a playful commentary about ruin porn — in one shot, from 2013, Stoye zooms so far out that you can see a busload of tourists gazing at the Packard Plant.
The fourth artist, Brian Day, is self-taught, but "extends [Rauhauser's] legacy in an interesting way," Rottner says. A lifelong Detroiter, Day's stoic, black-and-white shots have an oftentimes mysterious, sci-fi influence. Long Exposure zooms in on architectural details, using extreme angles to turn buildings into otherworldly abstractions. In his photo essay Time Traveler, Day casts himself as a suited, suitcase-toting explorer, walking through lonely Detroit landscapes. Even Planet Detroit, a far more straightforward take on street photography, retains Day's flair for the mysterious by showing subjects shrouded in smoke or mist.
In all, 10 photo essays are on display among the four artists, each of which contains between eight and 16 individual photographs. The photos span from the 1970s through the present, detailing neighborhoods like Poletown, Mexicantown, Southwest Detroit, the Cass Corridor, and others. "I chose the photo essays in a way that would blanket the city," Rottner says.
CardioVista: Detroit Street Photography opens on with a reception from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 16, at the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery at the University of Michigan-Dearborn's Mardigian Library; 4901 Evergreen Rd., third floor, Dearborn; 313-593-5400. Free and open to the public. Runs until March 13.
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