Photo factory 

Around the time that Henry Ford was tinkering with the automobile and collecting a talent pool of engineers and mechanics to create the assembly line and mass production, the Detroit Publishing Company was assembling a production system that would collect a library of nearly 40,000 pictures of the world.

This collection of negatives – compiled by commissioning renowned photographers such as William Henry Jackson, Henry G. Peabody and L.S. Glover to take pictures of America, as well as by purchasing their collections – comprised a kind of "pictorial reference library of the world." It would be used in an abundance of revolutionary ways: to market, teach, colonize, lure, memorialize, fetishize and contribute to the growing, complex visual culture that has come to mediate our experience of our surroundings.

These photos echoed 19th century landscape painting techniques and were popularly known as "scenic views." Some of their common subjects, which were printed on everything from post cards to panoramic murals, included national parks, urban landscapes such as Edenic city parks and street scenes, highly idealized industrial sites, narratives of commercial processes and "classic" architecture.

Of the pictures in the collection, 700 were of Canadian subjects – and the Art Gallery of Windsor has had the vision to employ John Jezierski, a historian and expert on the Detroit Publishing Company, along with AGW curator Helga Pakasaar, to mount an exhibition of typical company photos that relate to Canada. The result is a beguilingly simple array that surveys the kinds of visual strategies employed by the company.

One at first experiences a lack of information and signage in the exhibit to help reconnoiter the Detroit Publishing Company and how it fits into the history of photography. However, when the company’s methods themselves are examined, a sense of the viewer’s complex relationship with the photographic image begins to emerge. One realizes as well a kind of personal responsibility: to deal with the photographic image the way one might with any visual information, including especially fine art such as painting.

Another sense of the exhibition might be of the factuality of photography – the photograph as evidence of something’s existence. At the entrance to the exhibit are large panoramas of Niagara Falls and the Detroit skyline seen from Windsor that show the magnificence of nature – but there is also evidence of an industrial presence near the Falls and on the Detroit River. Factories inhabit the bluffs along the Niagara in a prescient vision of the precarious balance between nature and man.

While the panoramas are dramatic, they’re essentially documents – like maps, plates and topographical surveys – of the existence of these landscapes. An actual, naked eye view would never give the information that the camera is revealing. Slowly, the camera’s mediation of our experience becomes clear, as does the critical role that the Detroit Publishing Company played in the evolving domestication of the photographic image.

One idealistic series of Montreal makes a street scene there that looks more like Lisbon. Another series of Detroit looks more like ancient Rome than anything we know about. There are panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies for armchair travelers which subtly civilized the wilderness of the American continent. A series of idealized photos of Windsor’s Hiram Walker distillery, featuring its architecture and garden setting, reads like an early form of an annual report.

The effects of Detroit Publishing’s manipulation of the photograph on our perception of the world, as well as on visual culture in general, seem to have been enormous. The Art Gallery of Windsor’s exhibit of this work features a seminal moment in the history of visual culture as well as in the parallel development of capitalism. While Detroit put America on wheels, it is little known that our city also had a lot to do with the way America would look through the Model T’s windshield.

Thousands of images from the Detroit Publishing Company can be seen at the Library of Congress’ Web site. The library also sells reproductions.

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