Saturday, November 15, 2008

For All That I Found There - Images of Detroit

From the onset I must admit a bit of jealousy: Caroline Blackwood's essay "Memories of Ulster," from the book, For All That I Found There, about growing up in Northern Ireland, states more or less what I would ever want to state about growing up in a provincial backwater such as Detroit:

. . . But I still feel surprised whenever I hear Ulster mentioned in the news. It always used to seem like the archetypal place where nothing would, or could ever happen. For as long as I could remember, boredom has seemed to be hanging over Northern Ireland like the grey mists that linger over her loughs. Boredom has seemed to be sweating out of the blackened Victorian buildings of Belfast, running down every tram-line of her dismal streets. Now when Northern Ireland is mentioned, the word 'internment' rattles through every sentence like the shots of a repeating rifle. And yet for years and years so many Ulster people, both Catholic and Protestant, have felt they were 'interned' in Ulster - interned by the gloom of her industrialized provinciality, by her backwaterishness, her bigotry and her tedium . . .

However, contra Blackwood, I would state that in her descriptions of the absolute tedium of Belfast, parallel to that of Detroit, there is none of the partisanship which I as a former (former? does is end?) Detroiter, former Michigander (as opposed to Michiganian - a latter pretentious term), partake. I don't think I am alone in this: in utter nadir, the city nevertheless instills a fierce loyalty if not pride.

In its current state, Detroit is a remarkable victim of globalization: shrinking in population, economy, it is nothing like the weird industrial superpower it was with WWII & its immediate aftermath. Geographically it is a monument to sprawl - the population moving further & further out from the city center, until the center becomes empty. & it has brought back with a vengeance an unapologetic racism into a quotidian dynamic: the city is black, the suburbs are white. What was once one of the wealthiest cities in the US is now on the verge of becoming obsolete. Without going too far into the sociology (the nature of the major industries - the automobile industry) of such effects, I want to discuss how Detroit has been represented in art & photography.

The underdog mentality of the city has been a reigning principle for decades at this point. It is quite unfortunate, but I'd state that it is an important factor to mention. Chicago was formerly the "Second City" - Detroit was a fifth - & is now further down the ladder in terms of size.

As a site for literature, it has a strange, wonderful pedigree. The most literary work may be by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who writes about being an immigrant, working at the Ford Rouge Plant in Journey to the End of Night. & then there are numerous early novels by Joyce Carol Oates, set in Detroit, dating from her teaching days at the University of Detroit & the University of Windsor. The Garden of Earthly Delights. Expensive People. them. Do With Me What You Will. Oates understood a very salient factor about the social make-up of Detroit - the influx of country folk (Appalachian) to an industrial metropolis between WWI & WWII.

The Dollmaker by Harriet Simpson Arnow is a great novel about the displacement of rural folk into the industrial city. & the most contemporaneous & fabulist of all such work are the novels by Jeffrey Eugenides, both The Virgin Suicides & MIddlesex. Middlesex in particular, given it's "fabulist" structure, of an epic tale of an immigrant family, told by a hermaphrodite, nevertheless has almost documentary-like details in its descriptions of city & suburb.

But how is it seen? Despite my citings of rather cosmopolitan authors - Celine, Oates, Eugenides, Arnow - Detroit has been rather hostile to its representations. This is boosterism coupled with a truly embattled sense of place. It is a violent, embattled society - how to make pretty on this?

As an image Detroit had only marginal representations until its industrial boom in the 20th century. The 2 most important renderings may be the Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, & the photographs (done for Ford Times - an in house publication) by Charles Sheeler of the Ford Rouge Plant. The industry murals brought together, harmoniously (unlike the experience Rivera had with his destroyed Rockefeller Center work), in a truly amazing bit of odd-bedfellows, in this case uber-capitalist Edsel Ford, who paid for the murals, & uber-communist Diego Rivera. Much of the culture which exists in Detroit is for a large part indebted to the enthusiasms & financial largesse of Edsel Ford & his extended family. The Rivera murals are truly great work although they were not always perceived as such. Upon their completion there were complaints about Rivera's politics, the merits of the work, as well as the subject matter as inappropriate. Up until the 1970s the court was the smoking lounge of the museum, & was a place for relief, not art, by any means.

The Sheeler photographs were done as publicity & emphasize monumentality over any interpretation. There are also paintings done by Sheeler, of the plant. Sadly, none have made it to the DIA as far as I know. I bring this up as I sense there has been a sort of horror of industry & its culture among the collectors of Detroit - going back to a sense of the "inappropriateness" of Rivera's murals, for example.

The DIA does have a collection of photographs by Robert Frank which were done in Detroit which constitute a curious record of the city. Frank's work while specific in its locales is also not specific per se - his images are about moods, as opposed to information. I believe 4 of Frank's Detroit images were in his book The Americans. Frank's image of the Gratiot Drive-In in Roseville is one of my favorite images ever: it invokes both the industrialization of an urban setting & it's contrast in what had been very recently rural space. Undetailed (compare this w/ O. Winston Link's image of a drive-in), grainy, it invokes a twilight between car & absolute emptiness. This is a Caspar David Friedrich kind of image, positing both the here & now & then an indifferent infinity.

I am not a historian of images of Detroit & I do not know what is being done there now - the DIA, to its credit, in conjunction with a show of photos by Kenro Izu set up a contest on flickr of "sacred spaces" in Detroit which I found articulate & moving. It made me realize that there is potentially a lot of work out there which may or may not be seen.

Perhaps the most intriguing thread I can find in all this begins with images such a Frank's: "unofficial" images, images from a working-class or middle-class background, images coming from displacement, movement, industrialization, modernization. When I see some of the art of Mike Kelley, from Westland, originally, it is near documentary of the middle-class youth culture I grew up in as well, just slightly earlier than my own time. Or the bad-actor theatrics of the Cameron Jamie video "Spookhouse," likewise.

Other work that comes to mind are the photographs of auto show models (Detroit, Paris, Tokyo) by Jacqueline Hassink which make explicit the symbiosis of the car & sexuality, a prosthetic attended to by these dutiful hired maidens. Hassink also made a video "Car Girls" of the spectacle of pretty girls showing off the latest models with gestures & presence.

Detroit as abject space, junk space, dead spectacle - this is when it seems most alive & fascinating.

Detroit was the origin of some great photographers who moved on elsewhere: Harry Callahan, Arthur Siegel, Todd Webb. Some of Callahan's early near-abstract images of natural forms, twigs, water, snow - were done in Detroit - aesthetically removed from the industry & sprawl, in contrast w/ Siegel's fantastic image "The Right of Assembly." The Callahan images bring to mind some of Edward Steichen's earliest pictorial images, of exquisite remove from the quotidian, which were done in Milwaukee!

Walker Evans made a series of images of people walking on the street in Detroit, shot w/ a 2 1/4 camera, at a dutch angle, against a blank wall which I have always found somewhat strange & haunting. Evans' "documentary style" as he termed it is in full force in these images. They seem loaded w/ information yet they deny it too - unpicturesque, the antithesis of the languor of street photography, they emphasize the process of the streets - the street is a conduit of movement, as opposed to a pictorial space.

From the 1970s my only points of reference are of Brad Iverson's images of the Belle Isle Casino's mens room, w/ its lewd graffiti & intimation of illicit sex. These had some local controversy at the time & where are they now? These images are more journalistic than Paul Graham's t-room images exhibited & published as "Paintings" but of comparable import.

Michael Kenna made a series of images of the Rouge Plant which given its louche industrial structure tempers Kenna's amok neo-pictorialism in an interesting way. I am usually indifferent to Kenna's work, but the Rouge work (done ad hoc, unofficially) I find interesting - making pretty of very un-pretty circumstances. 2 other bodies of contemporary work which I found evocative were for magazines: Ken Schles did a series of images of the People Mover downtown which emphasize its dystopic vistas; & there was an assignment for Esquire (I believe) of outlying strips where there was a serial killing of prostitutes, by Stephen Barker, which to my knowledge were never published or shown elsewhere, which are still active in my imagination - I still think of these images, how they deal w/ both the sordid & the dull in an animated, aesthetically informed manner.

& there are of course the vernacular news images of Detroit. Besides the "Work is What I Want" image from the Detroit News, there is also the image of Walter Reuther being attacked at the entrance to the Rouge Plant. & images from the 1967 riot can be truly outrageous.

Urban images tend to emphasize the picturesque - Paris or London or New York. Pretty or interesting or monumental. Just as there have been recent shows of images of Los Angeles, I think Detroit would be another alternative to such surveys.

an occupational tintype

The term "occupational" for photographs comes from a commercial appellation: a term used by dealers to indicate a portrait in which the subject is presented in terms of work. It is an antique term as well - used for distinguishing the nature of early media such as the daguerreotype, ambrotype, & tintype, for example. This is slightly different than the multitude of ethnic types sold as mass-produced cartes-de-visite (the typical Swiss or Welsh, for example) in that the other processes cited were unique images & were meant to be individual portraits, even if the portrait focused on a more generic social position such as one's trade.

Heaven bless such traders of images, for allowing them to continue to circulate into the present day, without dint of high artistic standards. I cannot help but think of more-or-less contemporaneous images such as those of the US Civil War which persisted because of the extreme ardor of those collecting any ephemeral aspect of the conflict. The numerous books of Matthew Brady's images for example: poorly printed, ignoring the visual qualities of the images in lieu of their historical (non-visual) significance. These all predate the modernist epicureanism of the Photo Dept at the Museum of Modern Art or other such venues in which the subject of the images is subordinate to their formal qualities.

From such "lowly" considerations, there is nevertheless a genuinely fertile & expansive way to consider images outside the scales of aesthetic hierarchies. Revisiting the exhibition at ICP, "America and the Tintype" I find that it has deepened my interest in the tintype, also its permutations. One of the provisional categories in the exhibit is the "occupational portrait" of which there are dozens of examples. For the most part the trades shown are artisanal & in the period in which they were taken they were being made obsolete by industrialization and mass production, The curator, Steven Kasher, makes an argument that such portraits, which would have been commissioned by the subjects, in effect represent a social assertiveness of the little man, the itinerant tradesman, a kind of embodiment of one's skills intertwined with one's identity. Such a synthesis of self, work & image seems impossible in our own media-based but alienated culture. I am not what I do everyday. Who would want to show that?

The occupational portrait has a pre-photographic history in European graphic traditions dating back to the 17th century of representations of itinerant trades. These are generic images - not of individuals but of types. The emphasis on lowly "types" as color - ethnic, geographic, class-based - was a tradition for the upper-middle-classes & aristocracy which functioned as entertainment, and informed later anthropological studies. The itinerant, the poor, are an exotic other in our midst. There is also an erotic element to looking at such abject classes. In Alain Corbin's history of the beach he cites the important erotic allure of working women, with bared feet & ankles seen at the shore - that this would be a revealing of flesh outside the confines of respectability & a powerful image as such. This in turn brings to mind the unstated eroticism of Walter Benjamin's mention of the Hill & Adamson photographs of the Newhaven fishwife in "A Small History of Photography." This is outside the social advocacy which we have seen in much photographic work, yet in terms of formal structures they are remarkably parallel. One could cite an early work such as John Thomsen's Street Types of London as being a rather dour moralistic Victorian reinvention of what had been hitherto a source of laughter & delight for the higher echelons of society - de-emphasizing the charm of such itinerant local color, being too specific & "real" even without individual names & situations cited. The photograph, as a medium, lost any aesthetic disinterested consideration in its emphasis on mechanical appearance - it was a form of industry made visible, as opposed to the mediation of an artist's hand. As an art, following traditions, it looked garish & unseemly. "Occupationals" lack the skill of fancier private portraits: frontal, with a frontal gaze, as opposed to the more aesthetic sideways glance, the beautiful pose which would turn the portrait into a consideration of beauty & poise. Tools in hand. Ready to work.

Kasher's reading of the occupational portrait, of such a portrait, while directed by economy, social strata, class, nevertheless representing an assertion by the subject, is an important re-writing of photographic history. Our so-called "vernacular" photography (& vernacular is a vague word I overuse myself) has so often been seen as a kind of technological determinism - a limited set of qualities which are foisted on the un-thinking subject. Kasher proposes a much more dynamic interaction between the subject & the paltry low-class tintype. & one can elaborate more, with other work, from there.

ICP has had some remarkable exhibitions of vernacular work: "African American Vernacular Photography" from the Daniel Cowin Collection. Geoffrey Batchen's exhibit, "Forget-Me-Not" of photography used as memorials for the dead. & also a small show of E.J. Bellocq, done in conjunction with the George Eastman House for a series of shows "New Histories of Photography." Photography relegated to the art museum denies its social roles & its experiences outside the museum. ICP has done important work in considering the myriad workings of photography in our world & also how it has been written, in the past & now.