Among Detroit’s myriad problems is the question of how to represent it. Journalists, filmmakers, artists, real estate developers, philanthropists and many others have all been attracted to the city’s story of decline and its potential for rebirth. As a result, there is a lot of tension between the sense that these people are improving the city or taking advantage of it. As the film Detropia deftly displays, capturing the city soul is not easy, and makes photographs of gorgeous ruin porn and chest-beating television ads about the city’s pride look like cheap shots.
So it is interesting to see two exhibits at the National Building Museum that show how talented photographers like Andrew Moore and Camilo José Vergara work in this contested territory. Moore’s exhibit, Detroit Disassembled, is, like the title, a bit too neat. The oversized images are glossy and stunning, with the kind of detail that shows how unfathomable the decay is. But unlike Andreas Gursky or Edward Burtynsky, who also work on a large scale, Moore seems to avoid commentary for the sake of aesthetics. Moore’s lesson seems to be that there is beauty in the abandonment; but we knew that already. The Central Station, the former Ford factory — walking through the exhibit I felt that if you’ve seen one picture of Detroit’s decay, you’ve seen them all.
Vergara’s images offer a different approach. Invested in a long-term sociological study of the American ghetto, Vergara produces photographs as a means of documenting the city’s sites of abandonment with an archivist’s sense of precision. Vergara has chronicled other cities such as Camden and Compton, but unlike those places Detroit has seen an influx of new investment and energy. How does Vergara deal with that? With no small amount of skepticism.
When Vergara spoke at a panel organized by Next American City and Megawords at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he had a visceral sense of frustration at the kind of art that was getting attention in Detroit. He had little interest in projects like Powerhouse or Maker Faire that can at times seem produced for the ephemeral, viral nature of the Internet and less so for the people living in Detroit. To that end, many of Vergara’s photographs are focused on the artworks and murals produced for and by locals that are unlikely to be in the next Whitney Biennale.
Vergara’s exhibit title, Detroit Is No Dry Bones, refers to the passage in the Old Testament where God added “life” to the “dry bones” of Ezekiel:
Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.
The phrase could be interpreted in at least two ways: Either Detroit is not dead, or it doesn’t need artificial flesh and tendons to be revived. Given that Vergara has suggested Detroit’s ruins be preserved as an “American Acropolis,” I think he is prodding us toward the latter.
Among the collected photographs are five images of Detroit’s iconic Central Station. At first glance, not much has changed in the building’s stagnant condition between 1993 and 2012. But you then see that in 2011, rows of planted beds were placed in front of the building, softening its appearance and hinting at the small ways Detroiters are reclaiming abandoned spaces and thinking inventively about new uses for the city’s land. Even if Vergara’s photographs stop time for a moment, change is increasingly inevitable — and visible.