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Gallery: Dave Jordano & Aaron Rothman

Detroit Re-Photography

In his recent essay in Places, Jerry Herron criticizes the ubiquitous “ruin porn” photography that “mystifies into 'poetic' inconsequence and remoteness the past that is represented by Detroit, and along with it the conclusions we might draw as a result.” By now we are familiar with these images, from the highly accomplished and beautifully printed photographs that adorn museum walls and fill coffeetable tomes to the endless Flickr streams devoted to the photogenic downfall of America’s industrial powerhouse.

Many of these images are indeed quite beautiful, the best touching on the sublime and reminding us that everything is destined to pass. But almost always these reminders are without context; and so it’s hard to see ourselves as implicated in the destruction that is being documented, and to feel that this is happening to us — and because of us — in the span of a few generations. “Images stepped out of time, that’s what turns tragedy into art,” Herron notes. These artful images allow us to contemplate the idea of decline from a comfortable distance, perhaps experiencing a solemn sense of enlightenment, though neither responsibility nor consequence. 

The idea of the picturesque, which guides much contemporary ruin photography, was developed, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, in large part to enable the aesthetic contemplation of ruins. As modernity was taking hold, wealthy Europeans took to touring the countryside, seeking out pastoral scenes and crumbling ruins and framing the views in their Claude glasses — the hipstamatic of the 18th century, these were small, darkened mirrors that would instantly turn vivid reality into a nostalgia-tinged picture. Using the Claude glass, the tourist would turn his back to the world and, in the small mirror, view the dimmed and desaturated reflection of the scene ahead. Today, at the close of the industrial age, we have replaced mirrors with screens — all those placeless photos of Detroit’s ruins look especially sexy on our iPads.

Dave Jordano’s photographs of Detroit help provide an antidote to this process of mystification. Jordano was a student of photography at the College for Creative Studies in his native Detroit in the early 1970s. Following the example of his photography heroes — Walker Evans, Robert Frank and others who also stretched, but did not break, the bounds of the documentary tradition — he set out back then to photograph his city. More recently, Jordano, who now works as a commercial photographer in Chicago, has been revising his student photographs and rephotographing the sites of the originals.

The resulting project, a selection of which is presented here, shows Detroit at two moments in time through the eyes of the same photographer. Ironically, it is Jordano’s inclusion of images of the past alongside contemporary views that helps to anchor us in the here-and-now. That these pairs of then-and-now images are by the same photographer implicates us in the changes they depict: this has happened — is still happening — in our lifetimes. Jordano’s Detroit is a living city that is part of our reality. It is a peopled city, even in the images of vacant spaces, and we understand its transformation as the result of decisions made by people — not as an artifact that results from the disembodied force of historical entropy. We cannot deny responsibility nor rest in a “fantasy about how we can always walk away from the past,” as Herron puts it. Detroit’s fate is not separate from our own, and we have to deal with it, one way or another.

— Aaron Rothman

Editors' Note

For more on Detroit, please see The Forgetting Machine: Notes Toward a History of Detroit, by Jerry Herron, and Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 1Part 2, and Part 3, Herron' earlier series of essays. See also Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape, by Dan Pitera, and  Writing on the Wall, a slideshow by Detroit photographer David Clements. And for more on the post-industrial Midwest, see This Is Flint, Michigan, by Wes Janz. 

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Comments (2)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

There is plenty of work in restoring a city. Put people to work and restore the city before pouring money into building anything new. Bring back the Pride and Beautiful Art and History of these old buildings....History is still in the making and what a way to remind people with the Art of History all around.
Lily of The Valley
01.15.12 at 05:40

I like the positive images, there is one with what appears to be a proud couple standing front of their house
01.17.12 at 11:16

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A selection of images from the Detroit Re-Photography Survey.
View Slideshow >>


Aaron Rothman’s photographs, video and installation artwork explore perceptual experience of space in both natural and built environments.
More Bio >>

Dave Jordano is a Chicago-based photographer; he was born and raised in Detroit.
More Bio >>


MORE ON Detroit

Motor City Breakdown
On Places, Jerry Herron looks at the troubled portrait of Detroit — and its spectacular decline — in recent books and films.

Detroit, As Is
On Places, a portfolio by the Detroit-born photographer Dave Jordano, drawn from his latest series, Detroit Unbroken Down; with an introduction by Aaron Rothman.

The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit
On Places, Andrew Herscher challenges the usual view of Detroit's decline: "What if Detroit has not only fallen apart and emptied out but also become a new sort of urban formation that only appears depleted through the lens of conventional urbanism?"

Lafayette Park: Living in Ordered Exhibition
On Places, Melissa Dittmer describes the experience of living in Mies van der Rohe's Lafayette Park in Detroit, where the glass-and-steel architecture encourages "a sense of intimacy that fosters community."

The Last Pedestrians
On Places, Jerry Herron traces the intersecting lives of architect Albert Kahn, artist Diego Rivera and industrialist Edsel Ford — and how they all shaped the visioin of Detroit as industrial powerhouse.

Living with Mies: The Towers at Lafayette Park
On Places, photographer Corine Vermeulen and the design collective Placement offer a glimpse of life in Lafayette Park, the Mies van der Rohe-designed residential complex in Detroit.

The Forgetting Machine: Notes Toward a History of Detroit
On Places, Jerry Herron tracks the decline and fall of his home city of Detroit, from ruin porn to the demolition of Hudson's to Henry Ford's first horseless carriage.

Writing on the Wall
On Places, a portfolio of photographs by Detroit local David Clements, of some of the many hand-painted signs and murals found throughout the Motor City.

Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape
On Places, Dan Pitera, of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, curates a portfolio of projects by artists, architects and activists who are reshaping the city's abandoned landscapes.

Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 3
On Places, the third and final installment of "Borderland/Borderama/Detroit," an exploration of the rise and fall — and persistence — of Detroit, and what it means in American culture, by writer and historian Jerry Herron.

Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 2
On Places, part 2 of "Borderland/Borderama/Detroit," an exploration of the rise and fall — and persistence — of Detroit, and what it means in American culture, by writer and historian Jerry Herron.

Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 1
On Places, the first installment of "Borderland/Borderama/Detroit," an exploration of the rise and fall — and persistence — of Detroit, and what it means in American culture, by writer and historian Jerry Herron.

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