Photographers capture Detroit’s changing face in ‘Motor City Muse’
January 23, 2013
DETROIT — Many artists and amateur photographers have felt compelled to capture the crumbling city — a trend that’s so popular, it even has a name: “ruin porn.”
But as the people who live here can attest, the city is far more complex than the sum of its decaying architecture. And it’s that complexity that the artists in “Motor City Muse: Detroit Photographs, Then and Now” have embraced in images that are thought-provoking, inspiring, sad and even sharply funny. Sponsored by the Chrysler brand and Rock Ventures, “Motor City Muse” is on display through June 16 at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The artists include legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who captured images of everyday life during a 1947 trip to the city; Swiss-born Robert Frank, whose 1955 trek to America included photography at the Ford Motor Company River Rouge factory; Detroiter Russ Marshall, who decades later caught other images of laborers at the Rouge and other factories for the UAW’s Solidarity magazine; Dave Jordano, who as a student memorialized some of the city’s most iconic buildings in 1973 and returned to those sites 30 years later to shoot what was there in the modern era; Detroiter Nicola Kuperus, whose images put a clever spin on fashion and automotive advertising photography; German-born Karin Jobst, whose photos of Detroit from 2010-12 highlight and abstract the city’s architecture through altered color and exposure; and Detroit native Bill Rauhauser, whose 40 years of shooting in Detroit resulted in a treasure trove of vivid images celebrating ordinary people. There are also images from the Detroit School of Automotive Photography, with vintage advertising shots by photographers such as Walter Farynk and Mickey McGuire.
Nancy Barr, the DIA’s associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, said she’s been working with a number of the photographers in the exhibit for some time. “Motor City Muse” tells “a small part of the big story of Detroit,” she said. Marshall actually gifted the museum with 40 of his prints, while Rauhauser gave them more than 400, she said. The exhibit features just some of the images now in the DIA’s permanent collection.
“A lot of them had art that was well-developed and kind of rare,” Barr said of the photographers in this show. “What I did with the exhibit was to bring together work that was historic and contemporary.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the collection by Jordano, whose side-by-side shots are a sort of then-and-now look at the city. The site of the former Crowley’s department store is now home to Compuware and Quicken Loans, and there’s a parking structure where the B. Siegel store once stood.
In an exhibit panel, Jordano is quoted as saying, “I wanted to share my experience that Detroit is still a living, breathing organism, full of life and movement.”
Rauhauser, who grew up in Detroit and earned an engineering degree from the University of Detroit, started shooting in the city in the 1950s, he said in an email interview. Although he moved to Southfield after he got married, he continued to document the city’s people and places. Images in the exhibit include one of an amateur photographer taking pictures of loved ones in front of Ford Auditorium — which has since been torn down — and a nun and older woman talking in front of what was then the Stone Burlesk club.
An exhibition of Cartier-Bresson’s images at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947 inspired Rauhauser, who until then had primarily considered his work with the camera a hobby. Rauhauser said a quote from the French photographer in one of his books stuck with him.
“He wrote, ‘Photography is a hobby; the art is in the seeing,’” Rauhauser said. “I never looked back.”
Kuperus’ work, by contrast, is much more stylized, reflecting her past experience on commercial automotive shoots. Her images in “Motor City Muse” comment on the use of female images to sell products; a woman’s legs drape out of cars and car trunks, but because their faces aren’t visible, they’re disembodied and mannequin-like.
“I’m interested in absurdity and how that theme interacts with day-to-day living,” she said in an email interview.
Like many of her peers, she continues to explore the city with her camera.
“I’ve been living in Detroit for 18 years, so it’s only natural that the majority of my work is shot here,” Kuperus said. “I like the variety of landscapes. So many great places, like the Fisher Building or the Belle Isle Conservatory — or just a gray, empty parking lot of Northland Mall. I like this freedom of space and places.”
Marshall’s work honors the laborers who built the city and its vehicles. The Livonia resident had almost unprecedented access to the Rouge and other Midwestern factories between 1969-1993, when he was shooting for Solidarity. Unlike Frank’s work, which captures life on the line at a distance, making it seem somewhat removed, Marshall’s photos feature portraits of workers on the job, and there’s a sense of intimacy and collaboration between photographer and subject. Barr said the factory images of Frank and Marshall demonstrate the toughness and grittiness of that work.
“I knew and sensed over time that these jobs and these workers and these factories would someday be gone, replaced by something or nothing,” Marshall said in an email interview. “It wasn’t lost on me that I had this opportunity to document and preserve the fact that these workers did exist at this time and in this place.”
Kuperus said the exhibit shows “that Detroit is truly a unique and special place.”
Rauhauser said it speaks to the field in general.
“The ‘Muse’ exhibition illustrates the great range of interpretation that exists in contemporary photography,” he said by email.
Visitors will find a display with historic images of other cities, as well — including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco — shot by some well-known photographers, such as Balthazar Korab, Weegee and Louis Faurer.
Barr said the exhibit is a nice follow-up to “Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000-2010,” which closed in April. Copies of a book from that exhibit are still available from the museum gift shop, and she said a book for “Motor City Muse” was expected to arrive in February.
“The themes are there — the autoworkers, the cars, the street life,” Barr said of the new exhibit. “But it’s different perceptions of the city and what it means. … I hope (visitors) see that we’re more than a city of crumbling ruins, and that many photographers have worked here and been inspired by (Detroit).”
The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward in Detroit’s Cultural Center. “Motor City Muse” admission is free with regular museum admission, which means that for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, there’s no charge to see it because of a millage voters approved last summer. The museum is now open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. For more information, visit www.dia.org or call (313) 833-7900.
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