‘I think the sense that you have in Detroit is that it’s the end of something and the beginning of something new. It’s very rare that someone lives at that time, at that place, where something’s disappearing, vanishing into the past, and something new is emerging. That’s very inspiring, to be at that particular time.’
That quote is by Grace Lee Boggs, a Detroit-based author and social activist who is one of many subjects interviewed and photographed in Detroit Resurgent, a new collection of portraits and essays about the workers of contemporary Detroit. The book interviews 62 subjects — a list that includes people from all walks of life: CEOs to street mimes; artists to journalists to hairstylists. But Boggs’ quote is exemplary of the version of Detroit the books’ authors tried to encapsulate: Opting not to focus on Detroit’s decline, the authors instead chose to focus on the people who are the lifeblood of the city.
The book, released last month by Michigan State University Press, is the result of a collaboration between internationally renowned, Paris-based husband-and-wife photography team Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk, with Howard Bossen and John P. Beck from the Michigan State University. Bossen, a professor of photography and visual communication, was reviewing portfolios at an international gathering called FotoFest in Houston in 2008 when he first became enamored of Perrin’s work.
Perrin’s photographs — black-and-white portraits of everyday folk from Asia, Africa, and across Europe — stuck out to Bossen in their simplicity as well as their undeniable humanity. A relationship was forged, and an exhibit of Perrin’s photographs of workers from around the world was planned for Michigan State University. There was only one glaring problem — none of Perrin’s photos were of workers from the United States.
An opportunity to flesh out the exhibition came when Perrin and Ewenczyk were offered a U.S. residency for a few months in 2012. “At that point I met with John Beck (associate professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Resources at MSU) and I said, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity to bring [Perrin and Ewenczyk] to Michigan. Do we want to simply let them loose or do something in Detroit?’” Bossen says.
Beck, who is involved with the labor movement, helped devise a list of initial contacts he thought would offer a good look at the state of labor in Detroit. (Full disclosure: Beck attended MSU with former Metro Times editor W. Kim Heron and current contributor Larry Gabriel, who are both featured in the book.) “We wanted people who were really making a difference, but the difference didn’t have to be at some macro level,” Bossen says. “There are well-known folks in the book, but we were more interested in the grass-roots end of the spectrum. … That meant finding diverse subjects beyond the obvious.”
Ewencyzk expanded upon that initial list organically through her interviews with the subjects. “[It’s] hard to describe what she does. She makes everything happen,” says Bossen. “She deals with all their logistical arrangements. She talks to the subjects. It’s really become this very rich collaboration. We did not realize what a good interviewer she would turn out to be.”
“I like talking to people; it’s a way to feed myself,” Ewenczyk explains via Skype from the couple’s home in Paris. “Each interview and each meeting is something really unique. It makes a kind of love story behind each portrait. Otherwise, the portraits would all be the same.”
Ewenczyk explains that while she is talking to the subjects, Perrin is just observing, trying to learn about the character of the subject and how that should inform photographing them. “We’ve been been working together for over 20 years,” she says. “He’s not comfortable with foreign languages, and he prefers watching and looking at people while I approach them so that he knows exactly where he wants to photograph and where he wants them to stand or sit.”
Perrin shot all of his subjects in 4-by-5 film, a method usually used in advertising for studio still-life photographers. “Compared to the 35 mm, you have a lot of details,” Ewenczyk says. “In the black-and-white, you have a large difference in the grays, and many, many details.” The resulting photos certainly have a classic, timeless look.
Typically Perrin gives his subjects a Polaroid test print (in Detroit he was able to email his subjects a digital shot), which Ewenczyk believes is key for getting their subjects to become engaged in the shoot.
Explaining the method, Ewenczyk pauses for a long moment to search for the right English word. “It’s not a process — it’s a ritual,” she says. “You cannot just arrive and show up and say you are are going to photograph a person. Why should the person open their heart and just give us her or his inner parts?”
Detroit Resurgent is available at the George N’Namdi Gallery or online at the Michigan State University Press website.
Click here to view a slideshow gallery of 20 photos from the book.