Saturday, April 17, 2010

Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore: Detroit Disassembledis a picture book of Detroit, of the decrepitude which can be found throughout the city: office towers, theaters, factories, schools, houses. The images were all made with an 8x10 camera, with color film, which has been printed digitally, intensifying the color palette. Moore has published books of photographs of Havana and also Governor's Island in New York City (in tandem with Lisa Kereszi) which is an abandoned outpost of the Coast Guard, a once fully developed community, which is the site of numerous plans for redevelopment.

The city book has been a staple of publishing - a casual list off the top of my head would include Berenice Abbott's Atget Photographe de Paris, her own book Changing New York, Bill Brandt's The English at Home, William Klein's Life is Good and Good for You in New York, Daido Moriyama's Shinjuku 19XX-20XX. The camera, the book & cities are intertwined technologically: each one of us can be an armchair flâneur. (I am ignoring the innumerable glossy tourist volumes about which I have nothing to say, except perhaps that they are the most common examples available).

There's a certain charm in realizing that Detroit has become as exotic as place as Havana, enough so to become a subject of a book(Detroit has also been photographed by Robert Polidori, who also published a book of Havana). American Ruins by Camilo Jose Vergara is a less sumptuous, less aesthetic view of the shrinking industrial cities of the US, but offers more sociological analysis, more tangible data-gathering of the canker in the rose of our formerly grand cities. In 1995 Vergara published an article in Metropolis proposing downtown Detroit become a monument like the Acropolis - the remains of an industrial economy, now defunct, an economy of the past. While his proposal shows a certain irony & darkness, a kind of black humor, it informs my own viewing of both Moore & Polidori's images which emphasize a much more sensual unselfconscious rendering of the truly fantastic environment of the city. In his photographs Vergara also revisits sites over a period of years, which in a bald, inartistic way imparts a time-line of continuous decay and/or demolition absent from the work of others.

As poignant as Moore's images can be, as "extreme" as the dereliction can be, the images are so beautiful, that one is compelled to hope they remain as such, somehow. Both Moore & Polidori's images remind me of the view pictures made in Italy in the 17th century by Canaletto and Giovanni Paolo Panini, which included tourist destinations such as St Peter's, or St Mark's, as well as various ruins such as the Coliseum - which were for a clientele of cultivated travelers, as markers of cosmopolitanism & erudition.

Andrew Moore's images (along w/ Polidori & many others) show a remarkably high skill set & an aesthetic view of what for locals is simply the world in which they live. I am reminded of the state motto of Michigan: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circum spice: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. Indeed! Perhaps we (it may be unfair to include myself) Detroiters are now finding ourselves like the Italians in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun - a last vestige of pastoral peasantry interfacing with a decadent cosmopolitan society which has descended on the city in search of artistic inspiration, a nobility of sensibility inferred in the contemplation of the centuries of ruins in and around Rome.

What also comes to mind is that the photograph, like the stereograph in Oliver Wendell Holmes' essay, replaces the thing itself. In our economy this translates into real estate. As gorgeous as both Moore's & Polidori's views of Havana are, I sense an invidious shadow lurking (not on the part of the photographers themselves but of greater corporate powers, which include publishing) behind such fragile worlds of diminished economies.

In Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity by Edward Dimendberg the destruction of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles haunts (in the future) the use of Bunker Hill in the films Kiss Me Deadly & Joseph Losey's remake of M. One sees a world about to disappear. & that it can be defined as such facilitates its total destruction.

From a distance it may seem as if what has occurred is relatively new, but the upheaval in the city has been an ongoing process for approximately 50 years, at this point. One could cite the development of expressways to Oakland & Macomb counties, beginning in the 1950s, as facilitating an exodus of an emerging middle-class out of the city to new suburbs. The 1967 riot exacerbated the polarities between city & suburb, defining them in terms of race & class. As a child in the 1970s in Oakland County I remember a common bumper-sticker "Visit Detroit - The Murder City." Considering the average dumb-wholesomeness of the average Midwesterner, that's quite a dark message to convey from that beacon of cheap-ass ideology, the car bumper.

My sense is that the hatred of the urban pandemic to the suburbs of Detroit has been a long-term anxiety about more diabolical issues at hand: there has been a continual exploitation of resources, based primarily in the automobile industry, in which obsolescence is always forthcoming. Sustainability & renewal have never been part of an economic equation which has been based in boom-or-bust short term profits. The city government itself has proved itself a kind of thin mask for larger corporate concerns, which ultimately have no specific site. There is no loyalty to place, & the pink slip is just around the corner. The message is: we are expendable.

One of the paradoxes in looking at photos of the "ruins" of Detroit is relative freedom it allows - an ability to experience some solitude, & to look at something in an unguided way. As per Camilo Jose Vergara, one can enter a space built by premises of capitalist expansion of the 20th century, & view it retrospectively, even as it exists still, before us.

It was always dear to me, this solitary hill,
and this hedgerow here, that closes off my view,
from so much of the ultimate horizon.
But sitting here, and watching here,
in thought, I create interminable spaces,
greater than human silences, and deepest
quiet, where the heart barely fails to terrify.
When I hear the wind, blowing among these leaves,
I go on to compare that infinite silence
with this voice, and I remember the eternal
and the dead seasons, and the living present,
and its sound, so that in this immensity
my thoughts are drowned, and shipwreck
seems sweet to me in this sea.

- Giacomo Leopardi