Found Photos in Detroit
Edition of 1000
Collected, edited and designed by Arianna Arcara & Luca Santese
Hardbound, 16.5 x 11.7 in / 42 x 29,7 cm
80 pages, 167 photos, color offset
A Cesura Publish book, February 2012
At first I’m unsure what I am looking at, without an introduction and an author there is a lot left to the imagination. The size of this book is inconvenient. It is designed to feel like a family scrap book, but it’s just big enough to feel out of place. I recognize the dismantling of nature that I know to be a photograph. Seems as though I should feel dirt and grain in my hands as I take in what lies in front of me, but this too proves to be an illusion.
Detroit, “The automotive capital of the world,” has a new name, “ruin porn” - abandoned buildings. Found Photos in Detroit combines two topics that have been used a lot in photography: photography in Detroit and found/lost images. Lately, photography in Detroit is grounded on ruin porn. It tends to focus on the absence of people and the structures that remain and continue to deteriorate without the presence of their inhabitants. The use of found/lost images has been seen in natural disasters such as Katrina in New Orleans and the tsunami in Japan. Found/lost images usually do the opposite, they are based on the subject. A story unfolds from the face of a person you have not met. Depending on where these images are found your mind can be more or less imaginative and questions turn into answers as you survey the homeless images.
The curiosity of Found photos in Detroit lies in the marriage between both of these ideas. This is a collection of found photos in a city that witnessed no natural disaster. These photos were abandoned, just like the crumbling buildings that inhabit the city. The buildings are missing people, and the people are missing a home.
In 1950 Detroit was home to nearly 2 million people. Today more than 50% of them are gone. Abandoned buildings populate empty streets. These buildings turn into vacant lots, that turn into parking lots, that hold little to no cars. Detroit has witnessed a great exodus because of a man-made disaster.
The New Topographics were communicating the same idea about a “Man-Altered Landscape” just 40 years earlier. They were reflecting the suburbanized world around them by reacting to the domination of the romanticized landscape photograph. By going against the grain of what was tradition at the time, they were portraying the growing unease of the natural development being eroded by industrial development and the spread of cities. The suburb was being born, people were leaving the city, they had cars and could travel further distances. The “Man-Altered Landscape” was buildings being erected to replace nature. In comparison; the man-made disaster goes beyond the economic downfall that spiraled out of control and digs into the reoccurring theme that is at the heart of this tragedy: inequality, racism, and political impotence. The man-made disaster looks a lot like buildings being eroded by the hand of nature. It is a show of nature telling what happens when man abandons its structures, that once were natures’ tyrant king.
What is left is a city in ruins, and that is what is being photographed. There have been seven photo books made solely about the ruins of Detroit. Thousands of photojournalists have passed through the same streets and vacant lots taking the same pictures of the same abandoned buildings with cameras that cost more than a house in this city. It is still about the same thing, this man-made disaster and the man-altered landscape come from the same place. At the end of the disaster there are still people, not just abandoned buildings. This is when the beauty of Found Photos in Detroit begins to shine through the cracks of these broken images.
They are not easy to look at. They are a collection of pain, violence, death, and neglect: a people abandoned. The images are, for the most part, portraits from the chest up of the subject looking straight into the camera with the farthest thing away from a smile. I get the feeling that I should not so easily be allowed to hold this at such close distance. A sense of trespassing takes over as I turn the page to the next display of eroding images. It’s quite surreal that these scenes are placed right in front of me in the context of a book. 80 pages of 167 photos on a 16.5 x 11.7in platform for me to stare at and at times, cover my eyes. This is an honest moment. Mugshots, snapshots, and police documentation. Is this all that remains of the grand city that was?
I disagree. I refuse to believe that this is an accurate representation of what Detroit was and is today. Certainly a city is made up of more than its police stations and its social work offices. Arianna Arcara, explains in an interview with Seekingmagazine.com, that the images are from the 60-70’s and at the latest 90’s. That being said, we are seeing the disadvantaged of a city anywhere from twenty to fifty years ago. That does not seem fair, but neither is what happened to this city.
Arianna Arcara mentions that 90% of the images they found happened to be of African Americans. She says, “..it was a consequence, more than a choice.” Maybe the fact that all but one of the images in this book are of African Americans, is telling. Maybe it’s not. For me, the condition in which these photographs have been found is mostly telling because of the extinction of memories, stories, and feelings they used to carry.
As I get to the last few pages, my eyes begin to blur. The images are no longer laid out in a grid like a photo album. One single image magnified at a time fully bleeds into another. The images stop being pictures of people, they start being structures. They are texture and colour with vibrating tones. A sense of entropy takes over and a lack of order and predictability sets in. Arianna Arcara & Luca Santese are showing me the gradual decline of a city.
Ruin porn and found photos are both lacking an identity. The life and story has disintegrated. They are just things that are given new existence by whoever finds them next.