01 July 2009

Picturing Detroit

Photograph from Bruce Gilden's Magnum In Motion essay
"Detroit: The Troubled City". © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos.

This month I am in SE Michigan, teaching at the ICPSR Summer Program; this is something I do every year. In order to get to Ann Arbor from Rochester you have to drive through Detroit. And pretty much every year I make the effort to get over to the city for one or another reason. In any case, checking out the Magnum blog today I came across this new blog entry discussing this new photo essay "Detroit ~ The Troubled City" by Bruce Gilden. It seems to me that a couple of things need saying.

Let's stipulate that Gilden is a terrific photographer in the technical sense. He makes powerful images. Let's stipulate too, that his intentions are admirable. He is trying to call attention to what he sees as a travesty in America. Then let's ask if he has a clue. Because that is what I look for in photography. What is the photographer depicting and what are those depictions used for. In this case, I think Gilden misses a lot of the story. We get doom and gloom but nothing else. And, without wanting to come off as naive (something I am typically not accused of being), I think he misses a lot by taking too superficial a focus.* This leads him to be simultaneously overly optimistic and overly pessimistic.

In the first place, contrary to the connection Gilden is making, the dire scenes and streetscapes he offers are not a new phenomena. They have been exacerbated by the current financial crisis. But the physical disintegration of the city has been happening for decades, largely as a result of economic disinvestment. Gilden rightly complains about the moribund city government that has presided over the disaster in Detroit. He might have added remarks about the State and Federal governments too.

But the underlying problem has been that economic agents - firms and employers - have abandoned Detroit (and many other cities like, for instance, Pittsfield Mass., where I grew up and Rochester, New York where I now work). They have taken their money and the jobs and moved away. The result has been an emaciated tax base and rampant unemployment. Those residents who could've moved out of the cities to follow the jobs often have done so. Those who could not have been left behind. In other words, the collapse of Detroit is not just a story about continuing corruption and buffoonery on the part of local politicos (look here for the most recent installment). That would make it a story of failure when, in fact, it is a story about processes integral to the operation of the American political-economy. We cannot fix what's wrong with Detroit simply with more FBI investigations.

On the other hand, by focusing on the surface - on the foreclosures and abandoned property, Gilden may be missing dynamic processes that are taking place out of his sight. Not long ago I noted here a series of essays by Rebecca Solnit about how residents of American cities are struggling against considerable odds (and also against the expectations of many more comfortably situated Americans) to bootstrap themselves out from decay and devastation. One of Solnit's essays is about Detroit (you can find it here). Solnit, of course, peddles hope and in the process seeks out actions, events and people who afford us grounds for it. I admire her for that. But I also admire her for not being naive. She isn't. Just as the voices in Gilden's photo-essay speak of resorting to criminal violence and fomenting insurrection, some of those Solnit describes are racists or despairing or both. But she also points to other creative, organized responses to urban decay and abandonment too. She has collected her essays into a book - A Paradise Built in Hell - which is due out later this summer. In a very short recent interview about the book Solnit remarks:
"Being in a situation where people die and systems are disrupted can have powerful emotional consequences, but to think that everyone who is in such a situation is damaged doesn't address the importance of people's strength and the support they find. This vision of human frailty ties into related pictures of human nature: that we fall apart in disasters, that we need institutions to regulate us because of our weakness and wickedness, and that we should be afraid of a great many things. These serve an authoritarian and divided society, and maybe what one of my sources calls “the trauma industry,” but don't serve most of us well at all."
It seems to me that, despite his intentions, Gilden risks contributing to the overly dire and pessimistic view that Solnit describes and thereby risks abetting the social-political-economic agents and institutions and organizations that will spring up to exploit fear and anxiety. I may not want to follow Solnit everywhere she goes politically. But I think she points us in what (potentially at least) is a considerably more productive direction than does Gilden.
* In fairness there is a discrepancy between what Gilden writes in the blog post and the voices he presents in the photo essay. So I am not being entirely fair.

P.S.: (5 July 09) I just happened across yet another lament for Detroit here at openDemocracy; the author, Ross Perlin, is significantly less sanguine, I think, than is Solnit. He looks at the decay of the city and the local agricultural and artistic responses it has elicited and concludes: "The artists deliver a harangue to accompany the decay, a raging against the dying of the light, but no end to the decay itself."

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Tom White said...

Though these images are important, I find it surprising that there seems to be an amazement that this can happen in a major city in America - that is precisely the place where I would expect to see this and indeed, I have seen it in all over the place in the three years that I have lived in this country. There are run down, dilapidated and abandoned buildings in so many neighbourhoods that I am never surprised when I see one. Perhaps it is more widespread in Detroit than in other places but it is far from unique, or unexpected.

I also agree that the focus on the negative while ignoring the positive is something we photographers are often guilty of. We have come to believe in the tradition that if we show what is wrong with the world we can get people to fix it. I have long since come to the conclusion that this view, while a necessary aspect of photographer's work is only half the story. We cannot criticise without at least looking into alternatives and at best providing solutions. That should be part of our job also. I know many photographers follow this line of thinking but 'good news stories' are still not in vogue in the media as much as they should be.

02 July, 2009 13:47  
Blogger chuckling said...

You make great points about the gloom and doom. And I'm willing to trust that Gilden is normally a great photographer in the technical sense, but I don't think he showed it here. The interviews were the strength of the essay. The still photos were the weakest part. The short video clips did a better job of communicating the message. That's just wrong from Magnum.

My old photojournalism professor would have given it a B, or a B+ at best. He'd say that there was little variety in the perspective, that almost all of the shots were roughly normal, too few wide or telephoto shots to give the eye variety and the photo context. He'd complain that the horizon was too often skewed, saying that was a cheap trick to imply motion (followed by a lecture about how Cartier-Bresson was the master of motion). Then he'd point out that several of the photos, including what would otherwise be the best shot, showed people with poles coming out of their heads. And I think it's safe to say that if people are capable of spinning in their graves, that is what he is doing at the idea that a Magnum photographer would show a photo in which a pole is coming out of the subject's head. Yes, he was a harsh professor, but I see those points.

And a bit off-topic, I'm surprised he's still using film. That just strikes me as crazy for an assignment like that.

02 July, 2009 16:52  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post; I too look forward to Solnit's new collection.

The present issue brings up a lot of interesting questions about the aesthetic and political concerns of documentary modes of images making. Gilden's particular project is hardly unique among photographers, and I wonder how it might stack up against something like Camilo José Vergara's ongoing projects Invincible Cities, Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto, etc. Through repeated trips over decades, I can't help but think that the depth allowed by his approach leads to a more satisfactory project (in terms of the aesthetic politics involved).

A significant difference between say Gilden's project and Vergara's is that one is a photo essay and the other functions essentially as an archive. This divide, and many of the discourses touched upon here, often aligns with a photojournalism versus fine art documentary approach. With people like Eugene Smith and others the photo essay seemed to reach its apogee, whereas at least since the Bechers I think it could be argued that the preferred mode of "fine art" documentary photography could be described as archival. Certainly the work coming out of the 60s and 70 exemplified by New Documents and New Topographics practices wouldn't have had any interest in terms such as "negative" or "optimistic."

Again these are considerably different projects in scope and duration, but since we are dealing in terms of political economy and the political terms of aesthetics, I could pretty much care less if there is a hair on the lens (unless of course that were conceptually interesting). What is at stake in these topical forms of representation is far greater than that.


02 July, 2009 18:27  
Blogger chuckling said...

...but since we are dealing in terms of political economy and the political terms of aesthetics, I could pretty much care less if there is a hair on the lens (unless of course that were conceptually interesting). What is at stake in these topical forms of representation is far greater than that.

W. Eugene Smith was as committed to the political aesthetics of photography as anyone, but the reason we are still talking about him is because he was also a master of composition and the technical aspects of presenting a photograph. I think it's safe to speculate that Smith never would have published a photo that showed a hair on the lens.

Countless photographers whom we have never heard of have similar political aesthetics. When considering composition and technical presentation in the service of political aesthetics, what is at stake is whether or not anyone is going to care about the photos for much longer than a short news cycle.

03 July, 2009 10:12  
Blogger Unknown said...

As for Detroit, my home town, let's not over look the corruption and mismanagement the has plauged the city government and the Detroit Public Schools for several decades.
It's possible that that behavior might have contributed to the City's problems.
Is tolerence of that behavior the responsability of the citizens?

03 July, 2009 12:13  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I wrote this (complete with link to a news report on Monica Conyers's recent fiasco)in the original post:

"In other words, the collapse of Detroit is not just a story about continuing corruption and buffoonery on the part of local politicos (look here for the most recent installment). That would make it a story of failure when, in fact, it is a story about processes integral to the operation of the American political-economy."

Sure, corruption and mismanagement (as you put it), are part of the story. But they are hardly all of it. Indeed, I think they are relatively small compared to the economic forces that beset Detroit (and other cities)for decades.

03 July, 2009 15:17  
Blogger Stan B. said...

A couple of things... First, it never ceases to amaze just how different a place looks (and feels) in person than it does in a photograph. The latter can sometimes give us a pretty good approximation, but little more. And it always, obviously leaves out what's going on just outside its borders- not to mention all the history that led to the moment the picture was taken (amongst a few dozen other things that a photograph can't possibly reveal). As you point out, present Detroit owes more to the age old problem of white flight than the current economic crisis.

BTW- Even the venerable Eugene Smith was not above producing a photographic image that was actually a montage of combined negatives to present the "truth" behind someone the likes of an Albert Schweitzer.

03 July, 2009 16:25  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree that "economic forces" are part of the problem, but a small part in my opinion. We all have to deal with the same "forces".
I think a large part of the problem is how many people have dealt with those forces.
The GM mess is a classic example.
It seems to me that management ignored reality for many years until it caught up with them.
The City of Detriot seems to have been managed by people who only thought about their own self interest rather than the community they where suposed to serve.
The same can be said of the the Detriot public schools. I remember a number of years ago when the major employers in Detroit complained that most job applicants couidn't complete the application because many of them couldn't read beyond a very low level.
I'm inclinded to blame our whole "free enterprise" system for creating a community where greed and self interest are prized as worthy models of behavior On the other hand "our system" has also created the highest standard of living for the greatest number of people in the World.
I have no answers as to what to do about it.

05 July, 2009 08:32  
Blogger chuckling said...

It's not true that the U.S. has the highest standard of living in the world. Not even close. I think the fact that so many people believe it to be true is a major factor in keeping us down. When people have no idea what it's like in more advanced countries, they can't even consider trying things that work so well elsewhere.

05 July, 2009 10:49  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Len, I looked up 'standard of living comparisons' on wikipedia. The entry admits that the matter is complicate dand also notes that the entry itself is contested. But here is how it opens:

The standard of living in the United States is one of the top 20 in the world by the standards economists use as measures of standards of living. Per capita income is high but also less evenly distributed than in most other developed countries; as a result, the United States fares particularly well in measures of average material well being that do not place weight on equality aspects.

On comprehensive measures such as the UN Human Development Index the United States is always in the top twenty, currently ranking 15th. On the Human Poverty Index the United States ranked 16th, one rank below the United Kingdom and one rank above Ireland. On the Economist's quality-of-life index the United States ranked 13th, in between Finland and Canada, scoring 7.6 out of a possible 10. The highest given score of 8.3 was applied to Ireland. This particular index takes into account a variety of socio-economic variables including GDP per capita, life expectancy, political stability, family life, community life, gender equality, and job security.

SO the claim that we have the highest standard of living is, at best, problematic and maybe just false.

It seems fair in this context to note also the rampant inequalities of wealth and income; the mal-distribution revealed by patterns of incarceration and of under- or unemployment; and the low level of public services (say reliable mass transit), and so forth.

05 July, 2009 11:22  

Post a Comment

<< Home