Photographer Russ Marshall stands near some of his works on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Photographer Russ Marshall stands near some of his works on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Photo by Heather Gardner


See Detroit from photographer Russ Marshall’s perspective

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published June 12, 2021

 “Break Room, Fisher Body Trim Plant, Fort St., Detroit,” a 1982 photo by Russ Marshall, is one of the many intimate glimpses into factory life he captured during his career.

“Break Room, Fisher Body Trim Plant, Fort St., Detroit,” a 1982 photo by Russ Marshall, is one of the many intimate glimpses into factory life he captured during his career.

Photo provided by the Detroit Institute of Arts

 Russ Marshall’s 1986 photo, “Detroit Coke Corp., Zug Island, Detroit, Michigan,” is among the images on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Russ Marshall’s 1986 photo, “Detroit Coke Corp., Zug Island, Detroit, Michigan,” is among the images on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Photo provided by the Detroit Institute of Arts

DETROIT — The Detroit Institute of Arts has a cool way for people to beat the summer heat.

Through June 27, the museum is featuring the artwork of renowned Detroit photographer Russ Marshall in the exhibition, “Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958-2008.” From atmospheric, moody city scenes to musicians performing to portraits of factory workers, Marshall’s work captures the many sides of the city and its people.

The more than 90 photos include images Marshall captured in Europe — including the Berlin Wall before it was taken down. A handful, such as one of Henry Ford II at a private lunch with friends, show the well-heeled in their finery, but his shots of factory workers — at their stations, on the picket line, having lunch and filing into work — are especially compelling.

Marshall was born to a blue-collar family in Pennsylvania in 1940; they relocated to Detroit three years later, where his father worked on a Chrysler assembly line. He became interested in photography as a teen, and during a stint in the U.S. Navy from 1960 to 1964, he became an aviation still camera photographer. After his military service, Marshall returned to Detroit, working as a freelance photographer for labor and trade publications such as the UAW’s Solidarity magazine.

Nancy Barr, the DIA’s curator of photography, said Marshall’s work allows viewers to step back in time and see the city, its people and its events.

“I had not come across anybody with as much depth and commitment to labor in Detroit (as Marshall),” Barr said. “It was really great to get this multi-decade (representation) of workers in Detroit.”

Unlike the so-called “ruin porn” that many photographers have shot in Detroit, focusing on crumbling buildings and neighborhoods, Marshall shows that, long before Detroit’s recent downtown comeback, the city was still full of life.

Marshall, said Barr, shows “the dignity and resilience of our workforce, and the music and the culture and the life.”

Music — including jazz and blues, which became early loves for Marshall — is well represented, with images of legends like pianist Bess Bonnier performing at the DIA and Sippie Wallace performing at the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival in 1980. In a 2019 interview with the DIA, Marshall is quoted saying that his interest in jazz started when his mother took him to the Drum Shop on Broadway Street in downtown Detroit to select a snare drum for his Christmas gift when he was in high school.

“I like to catch (people) at their job, catch them doing something,” Marshall said. “It’s more interesting to catch people in their natural state, rather than asking them to smile all the time.”

Although Marshall’s work has been seen widely, this is his first solo exhibition at a major museum.

“We worked together for two years, selecting photographs from his archive,” Barr said.

The DIA has over 200 works by Marshall in its collection, some of which have been purchased and some of which have been gifted to the museum by the artist, Barr said.

“He really was sensitive about shooting people in the streets,” Barr said. “He brings so much dignity and empathy to his subjects.”

True to his working class roots, Marshall — who now lives in Livonia — is modest about his accomplishments, saying his goal has always been to “just make an interesting photograph.”

He said he has tried “to be honest with every shot. … As photographers know, you never take just one shot. You take a lot, and choose (the best ones) later.”

The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. Admission to this exhibition is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. For more information, visit www.dia.org or call (313) 833-7900.