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Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Picture imperfect

Posted By on Wed, Jul 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM

There is always hope that any project setting out to represent the best of metropolitan Detroit will be itself of the highest quality. While the authors’ intentions here are admirable, the results are less so. But there is a larger question: Is it more important that this publication, documenting the existence of so many well-designed art deco-style office buildings, theaters, apartments, homes and other commercial structures, exist? Without it, information about a rapidly eroding lode of local architecture might be scattered about in building anthologies, archival collections and newspaper or magazine stories. Better something that focuses attention, than nothing?

The problems with this publication are significant. It is a picture book with too many mediocre pictures. Such glories as the frescoes of the Fisher Building and the Pewabic-tile arch entrance to the Guardian Building are not inspiring when an image of the former is obscured by a visible circle of light and the latter by the photographers’ odd perspective and an imbalance of tonalities. While many of the images are clear, straightforward black-and-white pictures of buildings or interiors, too many are distorted, blurred or oddly framed.

There is no consistency in photographic style. Obviously, historic images will be of a different character than new ones, but most of these pictures were taken by members of the Detroit Art Deco Society for a slide lecture on the subject. The authors explain that the lecture, given around the state and even in that monument of art deco in New York, the Chrysler Building, has been a success. That’s great, but a good professional photographer would have made this a much better book.

The text, which is organized as explanatory paragraphs under or next to the photographs, is informative. But a chapter — even a few more pages — of well-researched and clearly written history would have provided a chronological framework within which the various chapters about types of buildings could then have been grounded. Reaching out to a local scholar for such a piece would have added immeasurably to the value of the contents.

Obviously this is a work of good intentions, accomplished without a huge budget. Perhaps it will save a building from the wrecking ball because someone might recognize the structure’s worth after thumbing through the pictures. But the book could have been a real beauty, because the subject is so rich.

Marsha Miro writes about books for Metro Times. Send comments to


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