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August 28, 2013

Macomb photographer shares love of Detroit in museum exhibit

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

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Macomb Township photographer Jenny Risher’s new book, “HeartSoul Detroit: Conversations on the Motor City,” features portraits and interviews with 50 Detroit celebrities.

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — The city of Detroit hasn’t received too many flattering headlines since filing for bankruptcy in July, but Jenny Risher knows there’s a lot more than money woven into Detroit’s DNA.

For Risher, a photographer originally from Mount Clemens who now lives in Macomb Township, Detroit is first and foremost about the people who have come to define it. But rather than those individuals who have been plagued by corruption and scandal, she’s interested in those who have used the city’s gritty resilience as fuel to rise above the muck.

In her new book, “HeartSoul Detroit: Conversations on the Motor City,” Risher — along with co-author Matt Lee — provides intimate portraits and interviews with 50 of Detroit’s most influential, beloved and interesting public figures. Her celebrity photos are also the subject of a new exhibit at the Community Gallery of the Detroit Historical Museum, which is on display through Sept. 29.

“I didn’t set out to do a PR piece for the city of Detroit,” Risher said. “I just wanted to satisfy my own curiosity and help me connect the dots about what makes this place tick. A few years ago, I started thinking about how so many amazing people have come out of the Detroit area, and I wanted to capture that. I just think that Detroit is a really special place, and I hope that other people who see this book will realize how special it is, too.”

“HeartSoul Detroit” features images of everyone from rapper Eminem and Motown founder Berry Gordy, to automotive industry leaders Bill Ford Jr. and Lee Iacocca, to Detroit Tigers legend Al Kaline and former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, to actor/comedian Tim Allen and movie/television producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It also includes lesser known innovators like futurist designer Syd Mead and songwriter Allee Willis, as well as controversial figures like Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

According Bob Bury, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society, “People are really surprised to learn about all of these people who are from Detroit and have made such an impact on the world. This book truly runs the gamut, from politicians to business people to musicians.”

Risher spent about three years putting together “HeartSoul Detroit,” making countless phone calls and emails to agents and managers, and often jumping through hoops to set up each photo shoot. There were some celebrities who she was unable to reach — Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Francis Ford Coppola, to name a few — but her dogged persistence paid off more often than not.

“I was kind of obsessed with this book for a while,” Risher said with a laugh. “I was just really determined to make it work. This definitely was not an easy thing to do, but I didn’t expect it to be when it’s something that nobody has ever really done before.”

The book also gave Risher the opportunity to explore her love of the Motor City music scene. She was thrilled to be able to secure shoots with garage- and punk-rock pioneers like Iggy Pop, Jack White and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, as well as freewheeling iconoclasts like George Clinton, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper.

“Detroit is such a great city for music photography,” she said, “which for me is the most fun part of living here.”

Appropriately, the Detroit Historical Museum exhibit for “HeartSoul Detroit” features background music from many of the performers featured in the book. In addition, each of Risher’s images is accompanied by a personal message from the subject to the city.

To achieve the stark, striking images in her book, Risher isolated each celebrity in a quiet room and had them talk about their life, career and connection to Detroit. She further streamlined the process by shooting each subject against a minimal black or white background, which helped her focus solely on capturing their unique character.

“I was going for very simple, classic portraits,” Risher explained. “The biggest challenge was to bring out the personality of each person, but that’s always been one of my best skills as a photographer.”

Although this is not the first time that these photos have been on view, the museum has supplemented them with related artifacts: some from its own collection, some on loan from the subjects themselves and others that were donated to the museum. These include the “Mel Farr Superstar” caped suit from the former football star’s car commercials, letters written to Kevorkian from supporters across the country, a dress by fashion designer Anna Sui and a gown that former Supremes member Mary Wilson wore to one of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural events.

“It’s enriched by the fact that we have these key items that really add so much to the exhibit,” said Tracy Irwin, director of exhibitions and experiences at the museum. “We’re telling Detroit stories through images and through items.”

Risher’s book can be purchased from the museum’s gift shop, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit group Focus: HOPE. Specifically, all donations will go toward the organization’s EXCEL Photography program, which helps photography students at 12 metro Detroit high schools learn the skills of the trade.

For Risher, the Detroit Historical Museum represents “the perfect setting” for sharing “HeartSoul Detroit” with the people of the city. Like the three-year process of creating the book itself, finding an institution to exhibit her work was a labor of love, and it took about a year for everything to come to fruition. But she doesn’t regret all the long hours spent on this project for one second. After all, they serve as a fitting tribute to the intense work ethic, the fighting spirit and the relentless perseverance of all those whose images she so vividly captured.

“Nobody else was going to do this for me — I had to do it for myself,” Risher said. “One thing I’ve learned is that no one believes in your dream more than you do, so you’ve got to be the one to make it happen.”

The Detroit Historical Museum is located at 5401 Woodward Ave., at the corner of Kirby Street, inside the Detroit Cultural Center. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Admission is free. For more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit www.detroithistorical.org. To learn more about Risher’s book, go to www.heartsouldetroit.com.

Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran contributed to this report.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.